Atop the bluffs in Eastern Iowa sits a family farm with a crop somewhat unusual for the area. Not corn, not cattle, not hogs; this farm produces maple syrup. Dan and Dorinda Potter moved with their three daughters from McGregor onto the Potter family farm in 2001. About 10 years ago they went commercial with their business, Great River Maple.
“I wanted to stay home, work with my family, and ride my four-wheeler,” said Dan Potter. As it turns out, making maple syrup is the perfect fit. Dan and his family now have roughly 7,000 maples tapped between their two sugar bushes.
The family held their annual maple festival on Saturday, March 17, attracting hundreds of visitors from as far away as Maquoketa and Ankeny. Pancakes and sausage (topped with syrup, of course) were served in a barn on the property, as well as maple lattes, maple-granola parfaits, and maple-bacon sundaes. Visitors toured the sugar bush and sugar shack, and taste-tested bourbon syrup, maple cream, maple sugar, rich and dark syrups, all made on the farm by the trees and the Potter family.
Dan knows the history of the area, as the farm has been in his family since the late 1800s. The woods on the property were logged several times for sawmills in Sny McGill, and sugar maples reseeded the area. “We haven’t planted any trees,” Dan said. “It’s all natural growth.”
In the beginning, the Potter family tapped trees and collected sap in buckets, the traditional way. “The girls eventually said, ‘If you want us to keep helping you, we need to do this an easier way,” said Dan. Now, all the tapped maples are connected by miles of blue and green lines that carry sap to two 1500-gallon storage tanks. From there, sap is pumped uphill to the sugar shack.
Once there, it’s directed into one of two tanks in the shack’s second story. Down below, a reverse osmosis (RO) machine removes 75% of the water from the sap. Sap is a mere 2% sugar, which means 40 gallons of sap are required to make a single gallon of syrup.
After it leaves the RO machine, sap is further concentrated in a gas-powered evaporator. Finally, the syrup is filtered, bottled, and ready to be enjoyed. The water that has been removed from the sap throughout the entire process is collected and reused to clean equipment.
Syrup-making season lasts four to six weeks. Air temperature in the sugar bushes must be above 30°F during the day and slightly below 30°F at night. Early in the season, syrup is light and sweet, perfect for making maple cream. As the season continues, syrup gets darker and the maple flavor intensifies. Trees bring sugar up from the roots to feed buds as they form – but as soon as the buds pop, the sap’s flavor becomes grassy and syrup season comes to an end.
Trees, soil composition, temperature, barometric pressure, and other conditions affect syrup flavor. Therefore, maple syrup made in Clayton County tastes different from syrup made in Vermont or anywhere else - giving Great River Maple its own truly unique product now sold in local stores like Wilke's in Elkader, Sode's in Guttenberg, and at HyVees, Whole Foods, and markets all around the area.
Photo by from pexels.