Tapping for Treasure
Phillip and Sarah Gudgeon, makers of certified organic Kickapoo Gold maple syrup and maple cream, share a long family tradition of syrup-making in Wisconsin’s Kickapoo Valley region. Surrounded by some of the most beautiful land in the United States, maple tree stands, or sugar bush, are prolific in the area and have been the source of the sweet sap for hundreds of years there.
A long way from the days when their families would use all manner of containers to collect sap, even a fishbowl, the modern equipment used by the Gudgeons not only meets organic standards (Midwest Organic Standards Association) but their updated process provides a more energy-efficient process overall.
Starting with certified organic maple trees, Phillip says, “We now have over 5,000 taps that we cook from, though not all of them [are] on our home property. Most of these maple stands are on the hillsides with valleys between. This is very conducive to the use of tubing to collect the sap. The smallest tubing begins at the tapped maple tree, and runs pretty much straight downhill to secondary lines, which are angled across the hillside at a 4% slope. They connect to the largest main line, which runs in the valley and to a collection tank.” From there the sap is piped directly to the farm’s on-site sugarhouse.
Two re-purposed 3,300-gallon milk tanks in the farm’s sugarhouse (built in 2002) were converted to store the raw sap before and after it’s passed through the initial filtering using a reverse osmosis (R.O.) system. This process reduces the water content of the sap by 75%, thereby requiring less energy to condense the sap during the boiling process. The water separated from the sap through R.O. is then stored and used later to help flush and clean the equipment. After the R.O. process, the sap is piped to a commercial 4’ by 14’ evaporator, which boils the sap hard and fast, while another fixture reclaims steam from the process to reduce energy costs.
After reaching the stage where the sap is condensed into syrup, one more step to clarify the liquid is carried out by running it through a filter press where a filter aid, food grade diatomaceous earth, is used as an agent. While still hot, the syrup is then bottled.
Working for Gold
Producing enough syrup to sell year-round in addition to milking a 40-cow herd on the farm, this self-described “ma and pa” operation bottles, sells and delivers their product to retail outlets. For about two months before the sap begins to run in March, Phillip and Sarah hire two part-time seasonal employees to get the lines ready, help with trucking the sap, process the syrup, and then un-tap and clean the lines at the end of the season. In addition, Phillip reports, “We have a few family or friends that help with the process occasionally and most work for the gold…Kickapoo Gold maple syrup, of course!” Though their two grown children once helped to carry the sap to the outdoor cooking pan, Phillip says they’ve both chosen their own careers and do not plan on taking over the business when it’s time for them to retire.
Cream of the Crop
By boiling the syrup to a higher temperature to achieve a much thicker consistency, the delicious result is maple cream, another fun food. Phillip explains, “Then it’s cooled quickly (on ice) back to room temperature and stirred slowly. This is what gives it a creamy texture. If you think of making chocolate fudge, it begins by boiling many ingredients, but maple already has everything it needs, so no other ingredients are necessary.”
Visit the Farm
Farming in Wisconsin’s Kickapoo Valley is a complex prospect, with its deep valleys surrounded by steep bluffs and dense forests. If you’ve never visited the Kickapoo area, which is revered as a national treasure, here’s an extraordinary opportunity to visit and tour the Gudgeon Farm. On March 9th and March 16th, they will hold their annual organic pancake breakfast fundraiser (with Kickapoo Gold syrup, sausage, milk, orange juice, milk and Kickapoo Coffee) to benefit the Westby & Viroqua FFA, followed by a free tour of the sugarhouse and a horse-drawn wagon tour of the sugar bush.
“We have between 500 and 600 visitors each year,” Phillip says. “Most of them come to our annual pancake breakfast/open house during sugaring season. But we have had school groups,4-H clubs, and boy scouts come during other times of the year. A big draw to the sugar bush on our farm is a spring-fed shallow creek, which remains somewhat open even in winter. The sound of rushing water will entice any child to wade in the water, with or without boots!”
Familiar in their part of the state for their generosity, the Gudgeons support community organizations by donating syrup for benefit breakfasts, or by making gift baskets for benefit auctions. “We also support our youth by buying their animals at the Vernon County Fair,” Phillip reports, “All of these avenues have given us much exposure in our area, and somehow it has found its way around the country. We have shipped syrup to at least 20 states, and it has gone to Ireland, Norway, Japan, and South America.”
With the densest concentration of organic farmers in the U.S., Viroqua could be considered the epicenter of Wisconsin’s organic agriculture, and where organic is the accepted way of eating. If you do plan to attend the Gudgeon’s open house, try to stop in at the Viroqua Food Co-op while you’re there and say hello! You may even see some familiar faces.
The Kickapoo Gold website includes a thorough history of the family’s traditions and their improved techniques for harvesting and boiling sap, which can be found at: www.kickapoogold.net.