It's maple syrup season in Wisconsin.
At least it's supposed to be.
For producers like David and Leslie Meuer, their 130-some sugar maples nestled on a 150-acre farm in Calumet County have yet to be tapped, thanks to unseasonably cold temperatures.
"Ideally I'd like 25 at night and I'd like 40-45 during the day and it would just run like mad," said David Meuer. This typically happens the last week in February or the first week in March in this part of Wisconsin.
But with daytime temperatures not even reaching 25 in the past week, the trees remain untapped. That could affect the couple's plans to host two Making Maple Syrup clinics on the farm next weekend. The five-hour seminars include information on how to tap maple trees and make your own syrup, plus a look at the Meuer's sugar shed, and, if the weather allows, their sugar maples.
Last year was a "very good" year for maple syrup on the farm, Meuer said. He tapped his trees on Feb. 23, and the sap flowed until nearly the end of April. Across Wisconsin, it was the best year on record: Producers made more than 265,000 gallons, more than 5 times the poor production levels of 2012 and the highest amount since the National Agricultural Statistics Service began keeping records in 1992.
Despite touting the sugar maple as its state tree, Wisconsin still ranks a distant fourth in production in the United States behind the nation's leader, Vermont, which produced 1.32 million gallons in 2013 — good for 40% of the nation's total.
But the economic impact of maple syrup in Wisconsin goes beyond production numbers, thanks to events like the Meuers' maple syrup clinics. These agritourism-type events are drawing people out of cities and into the country, where farmers are seeing increased revenue from the tourism and selling products directly to consumers.
"Not only do they want to know where their food comes from, but they want to know how it's grown, and they like to and they want to talk to the farmers," Meuer said.
For the Meuers, maple syrup isn't the only show in town. The farm, tucked along the Niagara Escarpment on the eastern shore of Lake Winnebago, buzzes with activity year-round — literally in April and May, when the farm's hives produce honey the Meuers sell. June brings about 3,000 visitors to pick strawberries. Fall is pumpkin picking and corn maze time for another 15,000 visitors. Customers can also purchase additional products like jams, jellies, eggs and a customer favorite: Golden Maple Root Beer, made with Wisconsin maple syrup (although not the Meuers').
As if that wasn't enough, the Meuers are continually adding to their bill. Last year they organized a Rural Arts Roadtrip that opened up artists' studios in Calumet County to visitors. This year they plan to offer a Farm Flavor dinner series, consisting of five multicourse dinners on the farm prepared by chefs from area restaurants using local produce. All of these efforts earned the Meuers recognition as the Wisconsin Agricultural Tourism Association's 2013 Business of the Year.
And it's not just about money. On their website and in their brochures, the Meuers tout the three pillars of their business: farming, educating and conserving.
"We really push the education aspect because so many people are so far removed from where their food comes from now, and it seems to be the big movement right now, show people where their food comes from," Leslie Meuer said.
When a visitor arrives in high heels and is shocked there is no concrete along the paths of the corn maze, or a group of exchange students from Spain is flabbergasted to learn you can tap a tree and get something out of it, "it's yet another reinforcement for why we take the time to educate people and tell people how this works," she said.
David is on the board of directors of the Wisconsin Agricultural Tourism Association and works to help other farmers open up their properties to visitors.
The couple's farm is also Travel Green certified, thanks to things like opting for underground instead of overhead irrigation, reducing water use by 40%. They also give back to the community, donating the proceeds from their annual pancake breakfast (this year, March 9) to a local youth group.
While agritourism is where the Meuers' business is moving in the future, the core of the experience is actually a step back in time.
"A lot of kids would go back to their grandparents' place or something in the summer, but nobody does that anymore," Meuer said. "In a lot of ways we're going back to some of those same ways, back to grazing and things like this that were done 30, 40, 50 years ago."
How it works: At the Meuer farm, the entire maple-syrup making process can take more than four hours.
Maple trees that are at least 10 inches in diameter can handle one tap; larger trees can handle four or five. The tap, just 5/16-inch in diameter, is drilled into the tree's trunk at least four feet off the ground, ideally below a major limb. The sap flows from the tree into blue bags, which the Meuers use in place of pails because they are cheaper, hold more sap and reflect UV light from the sun to keep the sap cooler.
The sap is filtered and then transported to a storage tank at the Meuers' maple syrup shed before it flows into an evaporator where it is boiled in 60-gallon batches to the desired density level. The syrup is then filtered, taste-tested and finally bottled. Visitors to the farm can watch this process from an observation deck outside the shed.
A tree that is 15-20 inches in diameter will produce about 40 gallons of sap during a season, enough to make just one gallon of maple syrup.
How much it will set you back: The Making Maple Syrup Clinic, Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., costs $30 per person and includes lunch.
The farm's pancake breakfast, next Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., is $6 for adults, $3 for kids under 12 and free for those under 3.
Getting there: The Meuer Farm is at N2564 Highway 151, Chilton, about 1 1/2 hours north of Milwaukee via Highways 41 and 151.
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