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Erwin Ruff shows off some of the maple syrup created at Ruff’s Sugar Bush this spring. He and his family have made maple syrup on their farm outside McGregor for the past 50 years. (Photos by Audrey Posten)

Two spouts are drilled into each maple tree at Ruff’s Sugar Bush. The sap is collected each day and transferred into a tank pulled by a tractor, which takes it to the cooking shed.

Erwin said he tapped 30 to 40 trees in the beginning, but the number has now grown to 400.

The sap is then transferred into these two tanks behind the building where the cooker is located. Gravity takes the sap through a tube that goes through the wall and into the cooker.

Erwin peers into the cooker, which separates the pure syrup from the sap through a boiling process.

Erwin Ruff shows the material that is strained off the syrup before it is bottled for consumption.

Ruff’s Sugar Bush has made maple syrup for 50 years

 

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

Spring is one of the sweetest times of the year for Erwin Ruff. Literally. For the past 50 years, he and his family have made maple syrup on their farm outside McGregor.

It started as a hobby, Erwin said, adding that he’d had no experience tapping trees before he and wife Eileen, who have eight kids, gave it a try soon after arriving on their farm.

“It was curiosity,” he said. “We were outdoor people.”

Back then, they tapped 30 to 40 trees, drilling spouts into the trunk, through which sap from the maple trees flowed into a bucket.

Today, said Erwin, Ruff’s Sugar Bush has 800 taps on 400 trees over 100 acres of timber.

“That’s pretty good for being almost 90,” he said, sharing that he’ll reach the milestone birthday in May.

Four to six people collect the sap each day, Erwin said, dumping it into a tank hauled by a tractor that can traverse the muddy and sloping terrain.

Speaking early last week, Erwin said the sap wasn’t really flowing, a result of the warm temperatures a few weeks ago.

“Some days, we’ve gotten 1,000 gallons per day when it’s really running,” he said, “but nobody’s getting that this year.”

“I’m looking for it to run this weekend,” he said, referencing the projected cooler temperatures. This year, the Ruffs began tapping the trees on March 1. Other years, they’ve started as early as Feb. 14. “It should go until April, and we might have a good year yet. You never give up hope.”

Once the sap is collected, Erwin said it’s hauled home and pumped into two tanks, located outside the shed where the cooking happens. Gravity takes it through tubes into the cooker, where it’s boiled over  a wood fire. 

“You cook it to 7 degrees above the boiling point,” he said. This process separates the pure syrup from the sap. Like with the flow of the sap, cooking time varies depending on the weather. “If the pressure is low outside, it boils quickly. Air pressure’s got a lot to do with it.”

Understanding the intricacies of maple syrup-making is just something he’s learned over time, said Erwin, who’s the main cooker.

“There are just simple things you have to know,” he noted.

Erwin said the current set-up is 20 years old. It’s quite different from how they began, cooking it on a stove in their home. The moisture and steam made that difficult, though, so they moved the operation outside.

Once the cooking is complete, the syrup is strained and bottled.

“I made this this morning,” Erwin said, holding up a jar of dark, richly-colored syrup. “We don’t add anything to it. It’s a lot darker than usual, but it still tastes good. The synthetic stuff doesn’t come near it.”

As with other aspects of the maple syrup-making process, Erwin said temperature also affects the color of the syrup, more so than any other factor. Colder temperatures at the start of the season usually produce a lighter-colored syrup, while warmer temperatures at the end make it darker. Because of the warm weather this month, the earlier syrup looks more like it would later in the season.

“But if we get colder weather, we could have lighter-colored syrup than we do now,” Erwin noted.

It takes many gallons of sap—an average of 40—to make one gallon of maple syrup. Each year, Erwin said, Ruff’s Sugar Bush puts out between 150 to 200 containers of syrup each year in varying sizes.

Erwin said people stop by the farm, located on King Road, to purchase syrup. It’s also available at By the Spoonful in McGregor, at Osborne in Elkader and Valley Fish and Cheese in Prairie du Chien, among other places. Erwin’s son, Alan, and Alan’s wife, Connie, also sell the syrup at their small shop at the entrance to Wyalusing State Park, in Wisconsin.

Erwin said he likes that making syrup keeps him busy and active. He’s also shown others the ropes over the years and invites school groups out to the farm. One from Central was there Friday.

However, the most rewarding aspect of the hobby, said Erwin, has been the time he’s spent with his family, passing on the tradition.

“My family loves the syrup,” he said. “I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t for them.”

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