There are hobbies and there are serious hobbies. Steve Burgess crossed the line from one to the other shortly after moving from Neillsville, Wis., to the Twin Ports in 2012.
About 20 years ago in Neillsville, Steve, his wife Kathy and their five children began tapping trees, hanging a bucket on each one to gather sap and boil it into maple syrup. It served as a healthy whole-family activity. They eventually tapped about 70 trees.
“We went around the woods in a tractor with a milk can on the back. We dumped the buckets into the milk can and brought it to our sugar shack. It went into a pan, where we boiled down the sap,” Steve explained.
When named chief executive of National Bank of Commerce seven years ago, he immediately sought a plot of land to accommodate his other hobby – hunting. As a busy executive, he wanted something rural but close to his Superior office. The couple found 80 acres atop the hill on St. Louis River Road in Duluth.
“We bought this land to hunt in the city limits because I don’t have a lot of time. I was out there one night and noticed there were a lot of maple trees. That evening, Kathy and I discussed sharing the syrup skill with our grandchildren,” Steve said.
One thing led to another. Today, about 2,000 maple trees on their hillside land are tapped. The operation is too big to collect sap in buckets. An estimated 21 miles of blue line connects the taps to centralized connection points.
Stating the obvious about the hobby-turned-sideline, Steve said “It gets into your blood. It’s a labor of absolute love, insanity or something like that.”
How big is big?
BusinessNorth interviewed Steve and Kathy Burgess Oct. 24 at the North American Maple Syrup Council / International Maple Sugar Institute’s annual convention. The gathering is held in a different city each year, rotating among the states and provinces of its members. Almost 350 registered for the three-day 2019 affair in Duluth. Some own large commercial operations while others make syrup part time as a hobby.
Convention co-chair Stu Peterson of Camp Aquila Pure Maple Syrup in Star Lake, Minn. (50 miles east of Fargo), started with 50 taps. Now, his firm has 1,400.
“We’re not big. We’re actually pretty small,” he noted. “A big producer in Minnesota has from 5,000 to 15,000 taps. In Quebec and New England, if you don’t have 10,000 taps, you’re considered a local producer.”
Overall, he said, “The industry is growing. There are 22 states or provinces represented here this year.” They included participants from Nova Scotia to Washington state who wanted to visit the trade show and learn more about recipes, best practices, value-added products, product grading and to receive an update about maple sugar research. Burgess Family Sugarhouse hosted a cooking demonstration.
“The whole industry is emphasizing the nutritional benefits of maple syrup as a sweetener versus the other sweeteners. There’s quite a bit of research being done. That was the big push this week in Duluth,” Peterson said.
Most people don’t know what goes into syrup, he noted. Regular pancake syrup found on supermarket shelves typically is made from corn fructose sweetener, sugar beet or cane sugar. Some brands are a blend including pure maple syrup (about 20 percent).
“It’s a way to market their syrup, but most everything that’s called pancake syrup or maple-flavored is not the real stuff,” Peterson said.
For those who want to make their own pure maple syrup, getting into the hobby doesn’t require a big investment, although a person needs land having a large number of maple trees (it takes 33 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup) and the time it takes to boil a batch down. In Minnesota, most producers operate part time. Only a handful of people cite maple syrup production as their primary occupation.
Becoming a commercial operator requires a much greater investment of time and money.
“If you want to be licensed to sell to the public, you’ve got to make a fair investment in food-grade equipment – stainless steel tanks, sinks and bottling equipment that can pass inspection,” Peterson said. But the demand for pure maple syrup is ample. “There’s really a niche in locally made products. We supply about 20 sellers in our local area – mostly retailers and restaurants. I try to be the highest-priced syrup on the shelf. We’ve built enough of a reputation that we sell everything we make.”
A family affair
The Burgess family has roots to the land that extend back for generations.
“My family had a business that sold certified corn, soybeans and oats,” Steve said. His great grandfather selected the font that is still used in the logo on the family’s products.
Steve and Kathy said they don’t want to expand their operation for now. They’ve reached a size they can personally operate and feel comfortable in placing a ceiling on their production – 500 gallons of syrup. That may not seem like a lot, but it takes 16,500 gallons of sap to produce that volume. And there are other duties. All of the spouts must be replaced each year. Equipment must be cleaned. Animals chew through lines that will have to be spliced back together. (Lucas Burgess, the couple’s son, has designed a tool for that task. He marketed the device during the October trade show.)
Fortunately, much of the process can be controlled remotely, Steve said. Monitors relay the data straight to his cell phone.
So is tapping trees a hobby, a profession or a mix?
“We’re having fun and have a little extra cash flow, but don’t ask me my hourly wage,” Peterson said.