Life is sweet at Uncle Jake’s Sugar Shack.
For the past week, Jasper County Conservation Naturalist Greg Oldsen has been constantly maintaining the syrup system at the Jacob Krumm Nature Preserve from sunrise to sunset. All the while he is educating dozens of area students and letting them sample the finished product, which is arriving much quicker this year.
Using a new reverse osmosis unit for the water filtration purposes, the Sugar Shack is able to more easily collect the sugary concentrate to make the syrup.
Coupled with conservation’s tube pumping system which extracts sap at record volumes, the art of syrup making has reached new levels of efficiency at Jacob Krumm Nature Preserve. Oldsen said it takes a long time to remove all the water from the sap to make the sticky, sweet syrup everyone has come to enjoy.
“The reverse osmosis is taking out half of the work before it even goes into the pan,” Oldsen said. “It’s been huge!”
Of course, it still takes a lot of work. Oldsen frequently stokes the fires and calms excess foam, in addition to the filtering and testing that goes on at different points in the process. It keeps Oldsen on his toes, sometimes literally when he has to constantly check the system for any foam. Deep down he loves it.
“I was here a couple of nights filtering until 2 a.m.,” Oldsen said. “It’s a lot of work but it’s a short period of time and I always enjoy it when it’s here.”
The Sugar Shack was built in 2018 as an educational tool for county conservation. Oldsen’s goal is to get families and students out to the parks to learn about these different processes. Ever since the shack was created, Oldsen knows of at least three families that are now processing sap into syrup.
Conservation staff began tapping trees on Feb. 24 and collected their first round of sap three days later. Oldsen has been boiling the countless gallons of sap — which is practically colorless — into a golden brown syrup ever since. The 10-year member of the conservation team does not yet know when he’ll stop.
“We start tapping trees when the daytime temperatures are above freezing … We are able to collect sap until the buds open on the branches,” Oldsen said. “Once the buds open, the sap will go from clear — like drinking water — to a kind of yellowy color. They say it’s a ‘buddy’ taste, so it starts to taste bitter.”
When that happens, staff will pull the taps and clear all of the equipment and call it a season. Sometimes the season lasts a month. Sometimes it lasts a week.
“It just depends on the year and it depends on the trees,” Oldsen said, noting the trees he taps are sugar maples. “We’re at the mercy of the trees and the weather. Most of the time we figure we start tapping trees at the end of February and we typically run through spring break week, so the middle of March.”
How much syrup gets made at the Sugar Shack each year? Well, again, it all depends on the year. When conservation was using its old “bucket system,” Oldsen could create about 10 gallons of syrup a year. After staff converted to its current tubing and vacuum system, they produced 23 gallons.
As of March 2, Oldsen has run 725 gallons of sap through the system and has another 250 gallons waiting in reserve. It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. Going by that calculation, Oldsen may already have about 18 gallons of syrup to start out the season.
Jasper County Conservation stores the syrup in jars to sell to the public, which should be available by the end of March. Oldsen said they can sell out quick.
“Usually by Thanksgiving we’re pretty much sold out,” Oldsen said. “But two years ago it sold in two weeks.”
The impact the shack leaves on visitors is as important — if not more — as getting a jar of locally sourced syrup to toss on a stack of pancakes or waffles.
Although that’s great as well.
“It’s all about inspiring people and getting kids out and excited about the outdoors and natural processes,” Oldsen said. “People are more aware now of where their food comes from. And they like to buy local if they can. It doesn’t get more local or natural than right here at Jacob Krumm.”