As his story goes, a small-town newspaper ran an article about the local park service’s maple syrup-making presentation. The article caught the eye of a doctor who owns a second residence on several acres in that same town. The doctor is intrigued: “I could do that!” he thought to himself.
That story was the genesis of an almost 10-year experiment that has become a full-fledged passion for the doctor.
Like many others in the maple industry who are not born into the business but fall in love with it and proceed from there, Frank G. Lushine, M.D., has made sugaring his business outside the office.
Research was required after that initial session in the local park system, however: do-it-yourself planning, carpentry, and construction; evaporator (now his sugar shack has two kinds) specifying and construction and gathering expert opinions and advice.
The gastroenterology branch of medicine deals with the digestive system. It seems fitting that Dr. Lushine, an expert in the GI tract, the mouth and the stomach, would pursue such a complementary passion.
Along the way, Dr. Frank had to make extensive trial-and-error attempts at boiling sap, learning the intricacies of filtering and bottling his product, even making packaging and labeling choices, as well as finding and purchasing the equipment best suited to his circumstances.
Dr. Frank bought all of his equipment from Anderson’s Maple Syrup in Wisconsin, which recently transferred its operation to Roth Sugar Bush, also in Wisconsin.
Depending on weather vagaries, sometimes the doctor finds himself spending two or three weeks of round-the-clock attention to his little sugar shack in the woods, which has now been expanded to make more space for increased production.
Beyond time invested in learning about the intricacies, the doctor has been cutting and seasoning his own firewood. He called in experts such as Steve Anderson, from Leader, to help with his equipment choices. He acknowledges he needs help.
He has learned that the minimum diameter of a maple tree to tap is 10 inches. He knows the importance of using the freshest sap for the best tasting syrup. He has learned to rotate the taps on the 200-plus trees he taps.
The old diesel pickup truck he once used to drive around the sugar bush to collect the sap with has been replaced by a Bobcat carrying a 300-gallon tank. It’s progress and modernization, accompanied by improved efficiency.
How much money has he made selling his syrup production?
“It’s impossible to make money on syrup,” he said, at least on the small scale that he makes it. In fact he said, considering all costs, it’s possible to lose about $100 on each gallon of finished syrup. He produces as much as 200 gallons in a good season.
The barrier to entry in the maple industry, the doctor has discovered, is not finding people willing to buy or to sell his syrup. The big hurdle is too many regulatory hoops to jump, he said, including FDA requirements on down.
He produces maple syrup “for pleasure only.” All of his production is 100 percent organic; no pesticides are involved in the process.
The real payback is not in dollars. Rather, he treasures the “alone time” he gets, he said. That, he added, and the chance to “get out in the woods with God,” working on a project that is all the result of his own hands.
This do-it-yourself approach to maple syrup manufacture includes the actual sugar shack, which he built – and has expanded once to make room for a second, larger, propane-heated evaporator.
From the beginning, when he boiled the sap he collected from the initial 10 trees – and using a propane-fired turkey fryer – he produced about five gallons of syrup that first year. Now his production has ratcheted up to 200 gallons per season, largely through the addition of a second evaporator. He said he has learned much about the best methods to make syrup. Weather-wise, the lousier the day is, the better.
When he began tapping, he had an estimated 5,000-plus trees on his property. His consultant advised him that they could be tapped and all connected with a tube system. This would use not only gravity but a suction machine to promote sap movement with such a large scale. However, he did not buy into that concept.
“I decided to stay small at that time,” he said. “Since sap flows by pressure, you need a good snow pack and low barometer.” An overcast, drizzly day is ideal. Cold nights and warmer days make the sap run.
The sap’s sugar content ideally needs to be 3.5 percent, though a little lower (3.2 percent to 3.3 percent is possible) but the higher the sugar content, the less boiling it requires.
He noted that every tree has sap – maple is just tastier. In fact, since the sap is perfectly drinkable right from the tree, and it has a decent sugar percentage, he thinks it could even be used as an energy drink – as is.