MITS: Refinement, family dynamic create sweet success for Garnavillo syrup producer

Dan Potter, co-owner of Great River Maple in Garnavillo, Iowa, checks his lines that link all the maple trees so the sap can flow to holding tanks. He got into maple production when a water well stopped working and he considered logging the trees. He found out that they contained sap, which led to the maple business. PHOTO CREDIT: Dave Kettering

Garnavillo, Iowa-based company Great River Maple would be nothing without the trees that produce its products’ trademark taste.

But more than a decade ago, these very trees almost were toppled before the business could begin.

Co-owner Dan Potter said a water well on his property ceased functioning about 11 years ago. Realizing it would cost somewhere around $50,000 to replace it, he considered the possibility of logging some of the trees on his family farm.

But an expert’s visit revealed an interesting finding: These trees were likely to produce more revenue if they were tapped for their rich sap.

Great River Maple was born shortly thereafter. More than a decade later, it produces maple syrup and a variety of other products that are sold everywhere from farmers markets to retail stores.

By perfecting techniques and relying on a family dynamic, the business has refined its trademark syrup and increased the number of products it creates.

Great River Maple sells maple syrup and maple-flavored sugar, granola and bratwurst, as well as cinnamon-infused and bourbon-aged syrup. It also sells maple cream, maple cotton candy and maple sugar.

FAMILY BONDS

In both its past and present form, an element of family runs through Great River Maple.

Potter said that previous generations of his family used the farm to create maple products in the early 1900s. Even so, when he decided to tap into his trees a decade ago, he was largely learning the process from scratch.

“The methods have changed so much over all those years,” he said. “There wasn’t a lot that was passed on.”

Potter did extensive reading and visited other maple operations in person to learn the ropes and develop his approach.

Through the years, the business has benefited extensively from the help of family members, most notably his son-in-law Jeremy Turek.

Turek married into the family a decade ago and joined the business a couple of years later. He serves as the manager of the operation.

It didn’t take long for Turek to realize that there’s an art to making maple syrup. When it comes to production, time is of the essence — largely because the tapping season lasts only a little over a month in the late winter and early spring.

“Any job has stress,” he said. “There are days where you think ‘It wasn’t very fun today.’ You are working with natural forces and you cannot always control it.”

The family rapport helps smooth over the rough times.

Potter said his wife and two of his daughters — including Turek’s wife, play a pivotal role in the business .

“When it is the best of times, it makes it even more fun because we get to work together as a family,” Potter said. “When things aren’t going so well, we know we can come together and get things fixed.”

SPECIALIZED PROCESS

During what is known as tapping season, Great River Maple gets a lot of work done in a short period of time.

Turek said the process begins by drilling a small hole — about 3/16 of an inch wide and 1.5-inches deep — into the tree. A small tube is inserted into the opening, which allows for the collection of sap.

When the family first started the business, they would collect sap in individual buckets. They have since refined that process, establishing a system where all trees are connected and sap can flow into one large holding tank.

The sap is pumped into what Turek calls “a sugar shack.”

“When the sap comes in, it is 98 percent water,” he said.

The product is sent into a reverse osmosis machine, which removes 75% of the excess water. The concentrated sap is then put into an evaporator, which removes more of the moisture.

The product is heated up and used to create a variety of products.

Through the years, the family has both perfected the product and improved its output.

In the first year, the company produced 165 gallons of syrup. In recent years, they’ve averaged 3,000.

In the process, the family is ensuring that the very trees that keep the business alive will continue to stand.

“People occasionally ask about the trees and they want to know, ‘Are we hurting them?’,” Turek said. “In effect, what we are doing saves their lives. The last thing we want to do is hurt them. We want to have healthy trees that continue to produce for decades to come.”