Passing the torch and changing with the times
Anthony and Rebecca Renken, fourth-generation sugar makers, founded Northwoods Maple Farm in 2015 on the very property Anthony’s grandparents started sugaring on over 60 years ago.
Harry and Ethel Tritten (Anthony’s grandparents) began sugaring on their Pine River farm in the 1950s in a modest yet primitive approach with little but a passion for family and the outdoors. Through decades, their passion for sugaring grew from using coffee cans for buckets and boiling with no shelter, to Harry & Ethel constructing their own sugar house and flat pan evaporator along with passing the tradition to their grandson, Anthony.
“Today, we continue the legacy our family started all those years ago sharing our traditions, time and work ethic educating the community about maple,” Anthony said. “We continue to be stewards of the land practicing sustainable timber management and tapping practices to ensure future generations the opportunity to enjoy our natural resources.”
In 2017, the Renken’s cranked their operation up several notches, going from hobbyists to commercially licensed producers. A brand new sugar house was constructed last year and equipment was purchased that will allow them to meet production goals well into the future.
“We built the building and purchased the equipment with the intention to cook up to 20,000 taps,” Rebecca said.
This year, the first season of cooking in the new facility, Northwoods Maple Farm tapped 3,000 trees on 40 acres across County Rd. P from the sugar house. The trees are tapped into a closed vacuum system that pumps the sap through a pipeline, that goes under the road to holding tanks at one end of the sugar house. The tanks hold 9,000 gallons of sap, which is piped through a reverse osmosis system and then into the evaporator. The sap is never exposed to the outside air throughout the process.
The new evaporator will cook about 400 gallons of sap per hour, compared to the maximum of 18 gallons per hour with the flat pan Anthony was previously using. Embracing tradition, they continue to use wood as a fuel source making pure wood-fired maple syrup a staple.
In his first cooking this year, Anthony put 2,500 gallons of sap through the machine in five hours.
A filter press at the end of the process ensures crisp, clean syrup.
All the automation and fail safes built into the system take much of the labor out of the cooking process.
“When he’s 80, he still wants to be able to cook syrup,” Rebecca said of her husband.
With the sap starting to run, the Renken’s pipeline vacuum system is able to collect sap around the clock, capturing everything the trees have to offer. In a good spring, the sap will run for six weeks. The Renken’s tapped their trees on Feb. 18 and will leave them in until the sap stops flowing toward the end of April. The Renken’s are shooting for 1,500 gallons of syrup this year, based on the projection of collecting 60,000 gallons of sap. During the peak of the season, Anthony expects to be firing up the evaporator every other day.
The Renken’s went through an extensive certification process with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to become commercial producers, which gives them greater opportunities to sell their products.
In addition to the pure maple syrup, Rebecca also makes maple candies and spreads onsite, which required them to install a kitchen in the sugar house that meets commercial standards.
Anthony’s dream of owning a large-scale maple syrup operation began about 10 years ago. As his grandparents aged, Anthony took on more of the duties for making the family’s maple syrup. He even wrote college research papers on the feasability of turning it into a viable business, gaining a great deal of knowledge about the science and engineering of the maple syrup industry.
Anthony is already planning to tap another 40 acres of trees next year, for a total of 7,000 taps. Anthony sees the potential for Northwoods Maple Farm to someday become a full-time job, but for the time being he continues to work as a second shift factory supervisor. His work schedule allows him to be home when the weather warms and the sap starts to run in the mornings.
The Northwoods Maple Farm sugar house is often a gathering place for family and friends, and Anthony and Rebecca are inviting the community to tour their 100-year-old maple forest and state-of the art commercially licensed facility. The public is welcome to visit during a cooking time, which will be posted on the Northwoods Maple Farm facebook page. Tours will also be available by appointment.
The public is also invited to a grand opening this weekend.