ST. GEORGE, Minn. — Every spring you will find a fire crackling and steam rising from a vat of boiling maple syrup on a bluff above Rock Creek, near St. George, Minn. For 40 years and counting, making maple syrup has happened in this very spot. Matt Dummer is proud of this fact and works hard to ensure this practice will be around for years to come.
Dummer and his wife Nicki are farming and raising their family on the same land his grandpa, George Dummer, and grandma, Jean, farmed — and also made maple syrup. “Grandpa loved the woods, that describes Nicki, me and the kids too,” Dummer said. The syrup-making process involves the whole Dummer family which includes, Zach, age 5; Luke, age 3; and Leah, age 1.
On the Dummer farm, they raise hogs and grow corn and soybeans. Also found on the farm are 100 hard maple trees which are tapped every spring for maple syrup.
Tree tapping usually starts in March, though it is all weather-dependent. Above freezing temperatures during the day and below freezing temps at night is what gets the sap flowing. Some of the trees Dummer taps are 100 years old. They are healthy and viable. Most of those same trees were tapped by Grandpa George all those years ago.
According to Dummer, where you put the tap in the tree makes a difference. “You favor the south facing side as it heats up quicker,” he said. The taps are five sixteenths of an inch in diameter and are drilled two and a half inches into the tree. Using that small of a diameter tap allows the tree to heal quicker while getting the same amount of sap production as a larger diameter tap. Dummer puts two taps in per tree.
A well-beloved tractor on the Dummer farm is a vital part of sap collecting. The 1950 8N Ford was restored by Dummer and Grandpa George 18 years ago. The tractor has barrels on it which holds the sap that has been collected from the trees.
The collection of sap is an important job for the Dummer kids and one they take pride being a part of. They take the pails containing the sap and empty them into the barrels. Each tree produces four gallons per day. It takes Dummer and family about 90 minutes each day to collect the sap.
Once the sap has been collected, it is time to turn it into syrup. Dummer cooks 100 gallons of sap at a time. It takes 35 to 40 gallons to make one gallon of syrup. In cooking syrup, there is a definite risk of burning it or not cooking it enough. Overcooking causes crystals to form in the syrup. If it is not cooked enough, mold can form in the jar.
“It’s a lot of wood and a lot of time,” Dummer said. It takes about six hours for the sap to cook in the evaporating process and turn into syrup. This involves cooking the water out of the sap. It is then time for the finisher process, which brings the syrup to the right consistency. Dummer uses a hydrometer to test the syrup’s density during this part. The syrup is ready when it measures 66 percent sugar solids on the hydrometer. “Finished syrup goes through a series of filters before bottled at a hot temperature,” Dummer said.
While Dummer does most of the work in making maple syrup (along with Nicki and the kids), friends and relatives help cut wood which is used to heat the sap in the evaporating process. “People are very interested in this (maple syrup). It’s never a dull moment when it comes to showing people the process.”
Making maple syrup goes on daily at the Dummer farm every day for two to six weeks during syrup season. This year was a good year for making syrup. “It looks like it will be a record syrup year,” Dummer said.
Dummer and Nicki sell the syrup to family, friends and through Facebook. They both explain that when they head into New Ulm to run errands, they always bring a few bottles of syrup along, as they seem to run into people they know who would like to buy a bottle or two. The money they make from their maple syrup sales go to their children’s education.
A lot has changed since Grandpa George started making maple syrup 40 years ago, but the syrup making process has not. “The concept has never changed.” Dummer has so many wonderful memories of making syrup with his Grandpa, those memories can be felt every time he creates a new batch of syrup with his family. The tradition of spending time with family while making syrup out on the farm is one that Dummer is honored to continue. “It’s something we look forward to every year.”