For 20 years Ken and Michelle Workowski hauled buckets of tree sap down Vernon County's steep slopes in hopes of creating enough maple syrup to last them and their friends for the year.
With a little money and a lot of planning the couple modified their operation three years ago to avoid the back-breaking labor - they installed lines to each of their tapped trees to transport the sap down the valley for them. The couple also invested in the convenience of a bulk tank to collect all of the sap. They installed a water meter to let them know how much sap is dispersed into the cook pan over the modified wood stove outside their sugar shack. It's no longer a simple operation, but it's one that saves on hard labor.
With the sun looming behind gray clouds the sugar maple trees in the woods along Co. SS near Viola, Saturday, weren't producing any sap. But a rolling boil of sap collected during previous days' warmth wafted a sweet scent near the sugar shack where a crowd of 30 gathered to learn about the Workowski's backyard maple syrup operation.
"Our system is probably more elaborate than you need it to be, but I've been making syrup for 23 years now and we've done it the hard way with inconveniences," Ken Workowski said.
The Workowskis made maple syrup with Dan and Midge McCauley along Hwy. 56 east of Viola for 20 years before they created their own facility on their property northwest of Viola three years ago. Now neighbor and friend Dan Colacino helps with the operation and earns some of the syrup for his efforts.
"It was a great time we had doing that with [the McCauleys], but we always wanted to move it home," Ken Workowski said.
Many similar homestead maple syrup operations can be seen throughout the county now as the sap starts flowing and stoves are fired up to cook the sugary substance into syrup.
Ken and Michelle Workowski completed construction of a cordwood sugar shack in 2010. They used to boil down sap over a fire in a trough as a much simpler method of making maple syrup. Now they have a customized wood stove outside their sugar shack and finish the syrup on a gas stove inside the building.
"After all of those years of making maple syrup, we knew what we wanted out of it and pretty much have what we wanted out of it," Ken Workowski said. "We probably did get a little carried away with the sugar shack, but it's been a fun project."
The Workowskis have 45 trees with 70 taps sending sweet sap down the hillsides.
Ken Workowski said last year was a short season, merely two weeks, and they only collected enough sap for 6 gallons of syrup. In an average season they can make 13 gallons, with approximately a half gallon of sap coming from each tree. The whole operation is dependent upon the weather. He said the season has been shorter the last 10 years, from 4-6 weeks down to 2-4 weeks.
Ken Workowski jumped the gun this spring and tapped his trees on Feb. 13 when temperatures soared in the 50's. The trees knew better and didn't produce more than a couple quarts of sap. He said most people haven't tapped yet, but will very soon.
Ken Workowski went through the main points for making maple syrup:
-- Tap trees with a diameter of at least 10 inches.
-- Collect sap in a bulk tank or food-grade plastic container.
-- Accumulate a batch worth of sap (35 gallons of sap makes 1 gallon of syrup).
-- Use sap within a week of collection to prevent spoiling.
-- Pipe or pour sap into a stainless steel pan.
-- Keep sap at a hard boil until liquid is of the right substance, which can be checked through various methods.
-- When it's close to syrup, slow the fire down to prevent burning.
-- Let syrup sit a few days to a week in a covered container.
-- Filter sediment from the syrup by putting six whipped egg whites per gallon in the batch, bringing it to a boil and removing the eggs when they rise to the top.
-- Strain, reheat and then can or freeze the syrup.
"There are many ways to get the job done," Ken Workowski said. "Some of it is experimentation. I think to be a maple syrup maker at a homestead level you have to be somewhat adventurous, enjoy the challenge of figuring things out for yourself, asking questions of other people, do a little reading and research. That's how you learn."
Ken Workowski said the first batch usually comes out very light and the last batch is typically pretty dark with a richer maple flavor. He said this could be for a number of reasons, which he just simplified as nature's magic.
The crowd walked up a path along a steep slope to watch the process of tapping a tree. Ken Workowski showed desirable spots on a tree, usually away from dead wood, drilling the hole 2 inches deep approximately 2-3 feet above the ground.
Ken Workowski said the hill country is ideal for his set-up because the slopes coupled with gravity send the sap to his tank in the valley. He and Michelle enjoy making maple syrup because it gets them outside and becomes a social event with the boiling typically happening on the weekends.
The event was organized by the Kickapoo Woods Cooperative, an organization that provides services for forestry, invasive species, trails, logging and more as well as classes including chain saw safety and mushroom growing.