Preston resident Ron Vorwerk shows off the maple syrup he entered in the Wykoff Fall Fest maple syrup contest.  He and his brother, Wallace, and his sister-in-law, Joann, tap maple trees on the family farm near Gibbon, Minn., each spring.   GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/BLUFF COUNTRY NEWSPAPERS
Preston resident Ron Vorwerk shows off the maple syrup he entered in the Wykoff Fall Fest maple syrup contest. He and his brother, Wallace, and his sister-in-law, Joann, tap maple trees on the family farm near Gibbon, Minn., each spring. GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/BLUFF COUNTRY NEWSPAPERS
Ron Vorwerk has been tapping maple trees and cooking sap into syrup since he was a child in New Ulm, Minn. Now a Preston resident, Vorwerk's syrup took top honors in the Wykoff Fall Fest's syrup contest a few weeks ago.

"We used to do a little in the house, but then the wallpaper started coming off the walls, so even though my dad said we had to do some syrup, we made just enough for a taste, and then that was it," Vorwerk said while reminiscing how his family boiled maple sap into syrup each spring on the family farm outside New Ulm. The boiling process caused the finish on the kitchen walls to peel. "With a 40 to one ratio of sap to syrup, we got enough to taste, but my brother never thought we'd get into doing this this big until now."

Now that he and his brother, Wallace, who still lives on the family farm, are grown, have children, grandchildren and time, they and Wallace's wife, Joann, spend each spring tapping the maple trees on the farm. Then they boil 7,000 gallons of sap down to syrup, making Rush River Maple Syrup, named for the Rush River that flows nearby and into the Minnesota River.

"We do it at my family's home farm in Gibbon, Minn., . . . where I grew up," Vorwerk added. "It's the farm my great-grandfather homesteaded - in order to homestead it, he had to plant a windbreak, so he had to get trees from the Minnesota River bottom...soft and hard maples. Some could be over 100 years old, and they're at least 75-feet tall. They've spread their seed and produced young trees, too."

Ron explained how the sap-tapping begins, then proceeds to the farm's sugar shack, no longer affecting the wall treatments in the house.

"We start at the end of February or the first week of March and tap the trees. We put two taps in one tree, 10 inches apart and we use plastic hoses to five-gallon buckets, so there are two taps to one bucket, and the most we get in one day is two gallons to a tap. It takes a cold night and a warm day to get good sap running," Vorwerk explained.

While they could put more taps in, the brothers have decided to limit their taps to two per tree and had over 750 taps running this spring. "We could've done more," Vorwerk added. "The neighbors come and help with the operation, and they may bring some sap from their own taps, so my brother processes it through, keeps 50 percent and gives them 50 percent. I help with it when I can get up there for about three to five days."

Vorwerk also pointed out that using buckets isn't the easy way to collect tree sap, because big syrup farms have a more sophisticated method. "The other system on the big taps has hoses that gravity feed to a lower point, and then they all connect and travel to a holding tank."

Tapping 325 maple trees takes daily dedication. "After each day, we collect sap in the John Deere Gator. There's a 150-gallon container on the back, so the only heavy lifting is from the pails to the Gator, then the sap is put through a strainer, pumped to a stainless steel bulk tank, and from there, it goes to the gravity tank, where we fill it three-quarters full, fire up the wood and spend the day chucking logs into the fire."

From the gravity tank, the sap becomes syrup that's put in the finishing tank. "We take the sap to the finisher, and there's propane burners underneath," he continued. "When it's all done, it foams up and that's when you know to cut the heat and strain it out, then put it back in the finisher. It has to be 180 degrees because that will seal the plastic cork on the jars."

Long, slow heating lends a deeper flavor to the maple brew.

"The darker it gets, the more finished it is," Vorwerk added. "That's probably why they chose mine at the Wykoff contest. It's just like candy...like brown sugar."

Vorwerk's role in the sweet operation is to keep the wood fires burning throughout the day and night. "I get up there maybe three to five days every spring, and I sleep in the shack overnight because you have to feed the burner," he said. "Wallace had seven flatbed hayracks heaped full of cottonwood logs to fire the burners, and even then, we ran a little short because cottonwood doesn't burn hot like the oak and pine we burn down here."

Since the syrup isn't inspected by the state or the USDA, the Vorwerks distribute it through donations from people who have grown to love the family's sap.

"We've got six children, and with 12 bottles in a case, we give each one a case of syrup, and they have friends who ask if they can have some, too," he said. "My brother puts on a big pancake breakfast - we have a 12-piece band, we do our own sausage, have pancakes and soft serve ice cream, popcorn - 450 people came this year. He's thinking that maybe he won't do it again next year, but when it comes time, he does because he likes to."

Vorwerk enjoys his share of the syrup on pancakes and sausage, of course, as well as on traditional German breakfast foods since he is decidedly a German descendant, but he has other uses for it. "I like it on ice cream, to mix with popcorn to make it taste like kettle corn."

The prize for being the sugar shack wood-chucker and a Wykoff Fall Fest syrup contest entrant was a $10 certificate to the Gateway Inn. "I called my brother and told him, 'You've got to come down here because I'll split it with you'," Vorwerk concluded.