MacKenzie Center sugar bush provides education, maple syrup and, occasionally, the sound of wolves
POYNETTE — Don Lucke knows his way around a production line.
For over 30 years, Lucke’s day job was that of a mechanical engineer for Oscar Mayer. He’s been a part of 12 patents, has helped design the equipment used for making Lunchables, hot dogs and other meat products, and worked in Oscar Mayer plants in Los Angeles, Davenport, Iowa, and Madison.
But for the past nine years, Lucke has spent three days a week each March taking part in a different type of food production process. And on Saturday he had a larger and more diverse audience than the squirrelly and inquisitive fourth-graders that he typically helps educate at the MacKenzie Center, which specializes in environmental conservation and education.
A promising spring day and the lure of pancakes and old school ways drew nearly 3,200 people to the Maple Syrup Festival hosted by about 100 volunteers from Friends of MacKenzie Center. The day included a pancake breakfast where 900 guests were served and volunteers walked visitors through each step of the laborious process required to make the syrup.
Included was how to tap a tree, boil the sap down to a sweeter and thicker consistency, and filtering, finishing and jarring.
“Cold nights, warm days is everything to get the sap to flow,” said Lucke. “It’s been a less-than-average season.”
Just like farmers who grow corn, soybeans or other crops, the sugar bush is also at the mercy of the weather.
About 120 trees on the 285-acre property were adorned with taps and 2-gallon aluminum buckets on March 5. Sap began running on March 14, and the first cook took place five days later. In all, about 320 pints of syrup were made this year, which is similar to 2017, when 1,533 gallons of sap were collected and 282 pints produced. The hope was to have a spring like 2018 when overnight lows ranged from 15 to 25 degrees for most of the season and the daytime highs were above 40 degrees for 19 of the 28 production days. Last year’s effort resulted in 2,630 gallons of sap that was converted to 532 pints of syrup.
It takes about 40 gallons of clear sap, which tastes like a mildly sweet water, to make one gallon of dark syrup. The magic occurs in the sugar shack where large shallow pans holding sap are heated for hours at a time by oak harvested from the center that is owned by the state Department of Natural Resources. Sap is about 97% water so the entire process is about removing much of the water from the sap to create syrup.
While Saturday’s free Maple Syrup Festival was open to all ages, the center this year hosted 1,400 schoolchildren from 24 school groups, who all took part in a maple syrup education program that was held on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays during March. That broke down to about 120 students a day who not only learned about tapping and boiling but also how Native Americans made syrup.
“What we find is that a lot of our students may not even know that maple syrup comes from trees,” said Hayley Parsons, a wildlife technician and natural resources educator. “So, it’s awesome to teach them the process of how it is made but we go deeper and teach them about trees and ecosystems themselves. So we talk about the process of photosynthesis and how the sugars are made.”
Wisconsin is in a prime maple syrup production zone. The Wisconsin Maple Syrup Producers Association lists 22 members including Maple Sweet Dairy in DePere which has been producing for over for 50 years, Anderson’s Pure Maple Syrup founded in Cumberland in 1928 and Roth Sugar Bush in Cadott, which tapped its first maple tree in 1956 and now also sells equipment for the maple syrup industry. The state also has scores of other producers who sell at farmers markets, roadside stands and Christmas tree farms, while others harvest for just family and friends.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Vermont is the leading commercial maple syrup-producing state in the country and last year cranked out 1.9 million gallons of syrup from 5.6 million taps. New York ranked second with 806,000 gallons from 2.7 million taps, while Maine ranked third with 539,000 gallons and 1.8 million taps. Wisconsin ranked fourth with 225,000 gallons from 750,000 taps. Nationally, maple syrup production in the U.S. totaled 4.16 million gallons, down 3% from 2017. However, the number of taps was estimated at 13.7 million, up 3% from 2017.
The syrup also brings a hefty price. Figures for 2018 were not available but in 2017, the average price of a pint of maple syrup ranged from $11.90 in Connecticut to a low of $7.80 in Wisconsin.
At MacKenzie, the syrup that is produced is handed out to volunteers, and some on Saturday was used to top homemade ice cream. Last year, each of the 80 volunteers received seven to eight pints. Some of those volunteers arrive by 4 a.m. to get the fires going and to get a jump start on boiling before the students arrive.
“That process goes all day,” said Parsons, who grew up in Eagle near Old World Wisconsin and graduated from UW-Madison in 2015 with a zoology and environmental studies degree.
But maple syrup is just one small part of the center. There’s also a logging museum, conservation museum, a lodge, housing for 82 guests, hiking trails and wildlife exhibits. The animals include three bison, a deer, badger, two Canada lynx, a red-tailed hawk, barred and great horned owls, an eagle, turkey vulture and two red foxes.
The stars of the animal exhibit are a pair of white timber wolves, who on occasion can be heard howling.
“That’s the beauty of this place,” said Lucke, a volunteer for nine years and former board member of the Friends group, who heads sap collection. “It’s such a gem and so many people don’t know about this.”
The MacKenzie Center is named after Harley MacKenzie, the former director of the Wisconsin Conservation Department, now known as the Department of Natural Resources. In the 1930s, MacKenzie directed the state to buy about 500 acres of land northeast of Poynette for the State Fur and Game Farm, which at that time raised fur-bearing animals for their pelts and game birds, including ring-necked pheasants for hunting.
In the 1960s, the property was split with the game farm dedicated to raising pheasant and the other half focused on outdoor education. The main lodge, which includes mounts of multiple bird and mammal species native to the state, was constructed in 1975. The current enclosures for the live wildlife were established in the late 1980s. However, the Friends group is in the midst of a fundraising effort to revamp the enclosures and give the animals larger and more suitable homes.
The six-phase project is estimated to cost between $2.5 million and $3 million. About 40% of the $350,000 needed has been raised for the improved wolf, coyote and fox enclosures. The hope is to have all of the work completed and money raised in the next five to six years, Lucke said. Included are better interpretive signs, paths and fencing and improved natural habitat.
“We want to get rid of some of the old wooden structures and the yards are small,” Lucke said of the enclosures for most of the animals. “The process now is all about the fundraising. It all adds up.”