By VIVIAN (MAKELA) SAZAMA
Sugarbushing, or the making of maple syrup from maple tree sap, is an ancient tradition of Native Americans. It was they who showed the colonists how to make maple sugar and maple syrup, and through the generations the practice has continued on. Les Schwartz, of Sebeka, became interested in producing maple syrup on 20 of his 160 acres southeast of Sebeka 15 years ago, and it is now a family event.
“When we were growing up the Schwartz cousins spent a lot of time together. Over the years, as we got jobs and families, we couldn’t do that anymore. Now we look forward to these six weeks or so of sugarbushing to catch up with each other and solve the world’s problems,” he laughed.
Les and his wife Brenda both retired a year ago; Les from 24 years as the telecommunications instructor at the Wadena M-State campus followed by nearly 10 years at the Lund Boat company in New York Mills; Brenda from the Wadena County Human Services.
“We like to have a cookout or two at the ‘sugar shack’ during the season, with pancakes and sausage, and of course our fresh maple syrup,” said Les.
The sugar shack was designed by Les and built by his brother Larry, a contractor.
“I have a sawmill and most of the lumber came from there,” Les said.
Most of the equipment, including the wood-fired stove made from an old fuel oil tank, came from Paul Eiswald, a former sugarmaker from Hewitt.
“Paul and his son had been sugarmakers for years, but after his son died, Paul just didn’t have the heart to continue with it. When I considered getting into it, my aunt told me about Paul, and I decided to buy out his equipment. Paul assisted with the initial setup and helped out for a while,” he said.
The process of making maple syrup is very intensive. Many cords of firewood are sawn, split, and stacked prior to the season starting.
“For the season to start and the sap to start running, the temperatures at night have to be below freezing, and the daytime temperatures need to be 40-45 degrees above,” Les said. “For a successful season, the temperatures have to go below freezing each night and rise again during the day, though if the sun is shining, the daytime temps can be lower, as the dark bark of the maple tree heats up with the sunlight, and the sap starts running.”
The trees are then tapped. Les prefers using metal taps rather than the plastic tubing that some use. “The tubing is left attached to the trees all year round, and the animals like deer and squirrels can take a toll on it. Plus, I like the forest to be in its natural state, not littered with plastic tubing,” he said.
Buckets with a metal cap are hung on the taps, and Les uses a Ranger to bring buckets of sap to a bulk tank near the shack. He uses old milk bulk tanks, which links him to his days of growing up on a farm.
“We put a milk strainer with a filter on the bulk tank to pour the sap into the tank, to strain out any impurities.” Les said. The sap is then pumped up into another bulk tank that sits about 8-10 feet above ground next to the shack. From there, gravity feeds it through a preheater that sits around the smokestack of the wood-burning stove in the shack.
“The sap is about 35-38 degrees coming out of the trees,” said Les. “The preheater is used to temper the new sap so that when the new sap hits the hot sap already in the cooker it doesn’t stop the boil. There is a spigot to add new sap to the cooker at the right pace. The cooker is set right in the stove and has a series of baffles on the bottom to create a larger cooking surface. The channels in the cooker act in a serpentine fashion, and the new sap pushes the syrup forward.”
From the first cooker the syrup then enters into the finishing pan, which is directly over the fire in the stove.
“I use both a sap hydrometer to measure the sugar content, which is generally about two percent, and a syrup hydrometer to get to about 66 percent sugar content,” he said. “When the syrup gets just below that 66 percent I take it off the fire and finish it on a turkey cooker which uses propane that allows for better control.”
From the turkey cooker, the syrup is then brought home to can.
“It’s easier to sterilize the jars at home,” said Les. “The syrup is heated again on the kitchen stove and poured into the hot jars to seal. “Brenda and my cousin’s wife, Tammy generally do the canning.”
The family involved include brothers Larry and Doug Schwartz, sister Barb and her husband Dave Eitel, and cousin Gene Schwartz and his wife, Tami. Son Eric and his wife Maria and their four children help collect sap whenever time allows. The grandchildren enjoy catching drops of sap onto their tongues right from the tap. Son Rory and wife Leah assist with sap collection as well.
“Sometimes we have two Rangers bringing the sap in when it’s really running,” said Les. “We usually start the stove at 5-6 a.m. and keep it going until 7-8 p.m., though several times Doug stayed all night to keep the process going. Sap can be stored for only about five days before it has to be processed, especially as the weather warms up. They don’t get paid but get to keep as much maple syrup as they want. We are so very grateful for their assistance. Without them the operation would not be possible.”
The Schwartz Sugarbush usually gets 120-150 gallons of syrup per year with a 40:1 ratio of sap to syrup. Les recently purchased a reverse osmosis system to run the sap through. He believes that should cut the processing time in about half.
“Usually reverse osmosis filters out the bad stuff which you throw out,” he said. “But in this case, we keep the bad stuff, the sugar, and filter out the water, which in turn we use to clean out the reverse osmosis machine every day. So instead of starting out with two percent sugar sap, it will bring it up to about four percent,” he said.
After the maple sugaring is done, the crew then starts on the birch sap, which is generally only about 1 percent sugar content.
“It’s about 80-100 gallons of sap to one gallon of syrup,” said Les. “With the reverse osmosis we can cut that process way down too. Birch syrup has more of a molasses or teriyaki taste, which some people like to use on fish,” said Les. He also makes a blend of the two syrups of 15 percent birch and 85 percent maple.
Over the years Les has put his instructor’s experience to use by hosting various groups such as grade schoolers from Sebeka, Park Rapids and Wadena schools, 4-H groups, Boy or Girl Scouts, Homemakers groups, and even foreign exchange students.”
The 10th grade biology class from Henning, led by their teacher Dana Damm, usually come out twice in the season,” said Les. “The first time we show them how to identify the maple trees, which helps prepare them for questions on their state biology exam in the spring. Once they can identify maple trees, they then help us tap the trees. In just a few hours they will tap 175-200 trees, about half of what we need, which helps us immensely. During their second trip to the sugarbush, they collect sap and learn about the boiling down process. For their efforts, they are rewarded with a sample of the finished product, which they really enjoy,” he said. The Scouts and 4H groups will sometimes bring pancake mix, sausage, juice, etc. and cook a breakfast at the shack. “We tell them we’ll supply the syrup if they bring everything else,” said Les.
Les is President of the Wadena Area Growers Association/Wadena Farmers Market, and the Schwartzes are members of Minnesota Grown and an authorized vendor for the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program. In 2021, Les and Brenda Schwartz were awarded the Farm Family of the Year by the Wadena County Extension Service, a sweet reward for a sweet endeavor. For more information or to schedule a tour for a group, call Les at (218) 639-1941.