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March 8, 2012 Volume 33, No. 23

MU professor harnesses Missouri trees to make his own maple syrup

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AMERICAN TRADITION: Richard Guyette, professor of agroforestry, has tapped 80 trees so far this year to make maple syrup for friends and family. Here Guyette reseats a bucket after harvesting the sap from a maple tree on his property. Photo by Mike Burden


Fire management, logging practices have made state maples more common

When you drizzle syrup on your pancakes, which state comes to mind? Most likely you think of Vermont. 

Think again. Grade A maple syrup is made right here in Missouri. Richard Guyette, an associate professor of agroforestry, has harvested, boiled and bottled the sweet stuff for the past 36 years on his property near the Baskett Wildlife Research and Education Center in Ashland, Mo. 

In recent decades, Missouri sugar bushes, or stands of several maples together, have become more common due to changes in fire management and logging practices. This has allowed more maples to flourish, especially along the river hills, Guyette said.

Sugaring in America goes back to the early settlers. It requires having the right trees, climate and tools for production. 

Though dependent on weather, the Missouri season for sugaring lasts roughly from February to mid-April, giving plenty of time for hobbyists like Guyette to discover the thrill of cultivating their own maple syrup.

Until the early 19th century, many rural Missourians made sugar from maple sap. But then changes to the import tax on sugar made it cheaper for them to buy imported cane sugar. 

Competition from states with a longer growing season caused further decline in local syrup production. A handful of Missouri farmers today are looking to bring sugaring back as a hobby or business venture.  

Guyette started sugaring in the 1970s because he had good maples on his property. 

“There was this back-to-the-land movement,” he said. “Maple syrup seemed to fit right into that.” 

So far this season, Guyette, his wife, Mary Lottes, and friend Kevin Hosman have harvested 234 gallons of sap from 80 trees. Some of the trees have produced each year since Guyette first tapped them. 

Sap in February is the highest grade, he said. It is lighter in color and has the most delicate flavor. 

In March, the syrup is darker and has a stronger flavor. The stronger stuff is good for cooking, especially for beans, pies and popcorn. Guyette makes “maple maze” popcorn with March syrup. He also uses it to prepare meats and combines it with Worcestershire sauce for steaks.

After harvesting and filtering the sap, the syrup is boiled over a roaring fire in a small building Guyette calls the Sugar Shack. The shack is the hub where people gather to share in the fun. 

Indeed, much of the sugaring process is about spending time with family and friends, Guyette said.

“Sugaring is a communal event for friends who chose to join in the labor of tapping, harvesting and cooking,” Guyette said. Reward to helpers is a bottle or two of pure Missouri maple syrup.

“It’s a labor of love,” Guyette said. “If you’ve got kids, family and friends, usually you can pay them off with a little bit of syrup.”

— Mike Burden