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Get sappy: Maple syrup hobby turns into small business for Cottage Grove man

Rod Hale's son-in-law Ed McClain pours the harvested tree sap into a bucket to carry it to a holding tank. Hale's one-time maple syrup hobby has turned into a small business. Bulletin photo by Judy Spooner1 / 2
Rod Hale, retired School District 833 administrator, has been making maple syrup for 30 years. Bulletin photo by Judy Spooner2 / 2

After he retired 30 years ago, Rod Hale wanted something to do in the spring.

It's not time to go hunting or fishing or to work on the lawn, he said. So he started tapping a few of the maple trees near the home he shared with the wife, Mary, on the Cottage Grove part of Lower Grey Cloud Island.

Hale started the hobby by heating the sap on a small camp stove until it became maple syrup.

Every year, the operation got a little bigger until the spring hobby for the retired School District 833 administrator became a small business. His syrup is bottled and sold at Apple Junction, Whistling Well Farm, and Fisher's Croix Farm Orchard. It can also be bought or shipped from the Hale's Sugarbush.

A side benefit of the maple sugar operation is the social side of the business. People stop to visit, Hale said.

Business is busy this time of year.

The sap from 700 area trees starts to run into the plastic bags below the taps on maple and boxelder trees when the daytime temperature is about 40 degrees and nighttime temperatures are about 20 degrees.

At the height of the season, about 600 gallons of sap a day will be harvested from the taps.

It doesn't damage the trees, according to Hale, and the tap holes heal up.

The sap, which is 2 to 3 percent sugar, is colorless and looks like water when it's harvested. It turns brown as it's heated to seven degrees above the boiling point in the evaporator to remove the water as steam.

When it's 60 percent sugar, it's ready for bottling in the "sugar shack" on Hale's property.

Because the syrup is sold commercially, the Hale's Sugarbush is annually inspected and temperatures monitored in the evaporator.

There are piles of wooden disks near the shack that Hale regularly picks up from an Eagan manufacturing company that was discarding them. Disks are burned in his wood-fired stove. "Without the wood, we wouldn't be in business," Hale said.

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Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
(651) 459-7600