As the only commercially licensed maple syrup producer in Montana, David Knudson uses urban trees in Missoula and has to deal with hard frosts, vandalism and the effects of climate change during the short winter season. sugars every winter and spring.
It takes knowledge, patience and an ability to weather the storm to tap urban trees, collect the sap, transport it, slowly boil it all down and then bottle nature’s candy.
But it’s all worth it once that sweet, gooey treat is ready and he sees the smiles on his customers’ faces. He calls it a “unique taste of Missoula.”
For Knudson, who often teaches his craft to groups of school children or anyone else interested, his company Montana MapleWorks aims to raise awareness of the benefits of the ancient craft of sugarin’.
“I really use maple syrup as a catalyst for community education and outreach,” he explained. “One of my main goals is to give people a greater appreciation for urban trees and the incredible resource we can all benefit from. I am extremely diligent about analyzing tree health and observing them. for a year or more.
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In fact, he is the self-proclaimed tree ambassador. It collects sap from privately owned silver maples, Norway maples, sugar maples, boxelders and birches in Missoula and the Bitterroot Valley.
The city’s urban forestry division sent out a press release in January reminding people that tapping city-owned trees for maple syrup is illegal and can harm already stressed trees by depleting the natural energy stores and creating entry points for disease and rot.
“As many people turn to local, sustainable food practices, it can be tempting to try and hack into the maple trees that line city streets,” says Marie Anderson, urban forestry specialist. “But logging a street tree can deplete the stored energy the tree has saved to leaf through in the spring. Urban trees face a difficult growing environment, including drought conditions, compacted soil, soil volume limited and porous soils, so it is essential that we do not put additional stress on them.
The last thing Knudson wants is to hurt a state-owned tree.
His blue bags are along the private irrigation ditch and on other private land near downtown Missoula. This leads some people to assume that he is just draining the trees of their blood for commercial gain. Someone even shot one of his bags with a pellet or BB gun.
“People think I’m a tree killer just to make money,” he said. “Rather the opposite. I want to publicize our resources and help people learn about such a vital infrastructure that greatly improves our quality of life.
Knudson made his debut in 2015 as he raked leaves one day and looked up at the canopy.
“And I was like, can you harvest silver maples and Norway maples and make syrup?” he called back. “And the internet said yes. So I ordered some hardware from a small company in Vermont that sells tapping kits.
The tapping season can be as short as two weeks or as long as eight weeks, but the trees may only produce for five weeks of that time.
He gets permission from the landowners, then does a health check for at least six months to make sure it’s worth investing his time in harvesting a particular set of trees. With his equipment, he can harvest about 15 gallons of sap per day. It comes out of the trees and looks almost exactly like water. A tree can produce two gallons a day for a total of about 30 gallons of water during the collection period, which will boil down to anywhere between a gallon and a liter of syrup.
“Now I type just north of 200 trees, including the Daly Mansion in Hamilton,” he said at the end of winter. “I have about 340 bags out.”
Boxwood and birch trees each produce a syrup with a particular flavor.
“Boxelders are what you call a Manitoba maple,” Knudson said. “They grow in areas where sugar maples don’t grow and generally have less sugar in the water or sap than a sugar maple. But it still has a sweet, good-tasting sap that makes the syrup. It has a little marshmallow taste. This is a fairly simple base syrup.
Knudson said he operates perhaps the highest commercial syrup operation in the United States, although there may be companies in the highlands of North Carolina or Virginia that are also deprived of oxygen.
“I also believe that I am the only maple syrup producer in the world that draws its sap from the confines of an urban forest,” he said.
Once he has transported all the sap home in containers in his truck, he begins the process of reducing the water content.
With the help of a ton of YouTube videos and calls to various sugar makers and candy equipment, he set up three sugar shacks in his home.
“Outside, above the wood, I have a 2-by-6-foot flow-through pan where I boil most of my sap that comes from the Norway maples,” he explained. “In my driveway, I have two hobby-size evaporators where I boil silver, sugar, or elderberry sap.”
Inside his converted garage is a radiant-heated space that doubles as a small sugar shack with a small gas-fired flat pan. The garage is also the processing area where all the filtering and bottling takes place.
He has an artisan catering license and follows all health and safety regulations for the delivery of a consumable product to customers.
He sells his syrup on local markets or by delivery or on a stand in front of his house. The tiny amount of money he earns is barely enough to pay his expenses, but that’s not what it’s all about.
He wants to help others build the maple syrup industry in Montana. Norway maples could be planted as windbreaks, for example, and then used for sugar. With the number of Box Elders in eastern Montana, he thinks the state could produce 10,000 gallons of syrup a year.
“I would like to kind of use my energy now more to educate other people and kind of build a new industry,” he said. “He just needs more education and networking.”