Post image for Maple Sugaring at Family Farms

Maple Sugaring at Family Farms

by Laura on April 2, 2011

This piece was originally published in Honest Cooking magazine.

My daughter Sophia and I visited Family Farms in Delano, Minnesota on a dun-gray day in late March.  The roads that wind through the countryside west of the Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis are dotted with small, anonymous farms, with families tending modest fields of crops or keeping horses, chickens, or a handful cows, mostly for their own pleasure.  In a time when eating seasonally has blurred from lost art to movement to near hackneyed, when restaurant menus have become almost silly in announcing the sources of their foodstuffs, and eating as we were meant to has become a badge of the pretentious, these are the people who inspire me most.  Ask them about the locavore movement and they’ll likely scratch their heads; they’re just eating off the land as the seasons turn, the way people in the country have been eating for generations, and without much fanfare.  The cedar farmhouse and big red barn of the Hoen family, Deb and Dan, and their three children, Robert, Larissa, and Jake, is this kind of unassuming place.  They butcher and eat about 250 chickens each year, bring their cows to be processed and share the meat amongst family, eat the eggs from the various birds on their farm, and put up jams and jellies from the orchard and gardens on the property.

I first met Deb last summer at her little table at the Excelsior Farmers’ Market when I bought some of her syrup and fresh eggs.  We talked about maple sugaring, and she invited me to stop out to the farm when the sap started running in the spring.  There are boutique kitchen shops in the Twin Cities that charge more than fifty dollars a head for this kind of adventure, so I was delighted by her offer and her generosity.

As we arrived, the Hoen’s farmyard was astir with chickens and ducks and peacocks, cows just chased home, dogs, and family members gathering for the day’s work in the woods.  We visited their small cow barn and the chicken and duck coop, where the Hoens also keep rabbits, and Sophia gathered the still-warm eggs into a pail.  Then we walked to the sugar shack, where a 100-gallon pan of maple sap was on its way to becoming maple syrup.  Dan passed a small common cup through the thick, sweet smoke of the room, to taste the sap, faintly sweet and still clear.

Syrupping is a backbreaking endeavor.  The Hoens begin by felling a tree deep in the snow-packed woods.  It’s hauled out, cut into logs, and stacked in the sugar shack.  Then they tap 150 maples, one family member drilling a hole into each of the trees, another cleaning sawdust from the holes with a twig, another to place the spigots, and another hanging five-gallon pails from the hooks on the trees.  Every day at about 5:30 they gather to collect the sap; if it’s running fast, the pails can overflow and require collection twice a day.  On the day we visited, Dan and Deb’s son Robert strapped the sap tank tightly to the back of the tractor, and we all piled on and headed across the road and into the woods.  Through deep mud and snow and buckthorn, past deer tracks and lost turkey feathers, we carried pails, fanning out across the acres.  The Hoens call to one another to make sure all of the trees have been canvassed as they work, and make their way back, trip after trip, carrying pails full of sap to eldest son Robert, who mans the collection tank on the tractor.  The pails are lifted up, high above heads, to be emptied into the tank; at 42 pounds apiece, it’s hard work.  When all of the sap for the day has been gathered, it’s brought back to the farmyard, where it is transported from the tank though a set of makeshift pipes to another holding tank in the sugar shack, and then into the cooking pan.  Dan keeps the fire burning, often around the clock, waking during the night to add more wood to the fire chamber, and a family friend tends the fire when the Hoens need to be away from the house.

It takes 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of finished syrup.  This year, the family have gathered 500 gallons of sap so far; two years ago they processed a whopping 1500 gallons, working together the five of them, with occasional help from other family members who live nearby.  When all of the sap is boiled down, the Hoens strain it through specially made wool stockings and bottle it in their pine-lined garage, working together as a family.  The kids have been making syrup since they could walk, Deb told me as we flipped through her syrupping scrapbook together.  She hopes one day that they will look back fondly at the work.  I can’t imagine otherwise.

We cooked up some graham cracker pancakes as a vehicle for the Hoen family’s sweet syrup, and will be baking it into a maple pudding cake and a maple pie this week.  It’s the best and thickest pure maple syrup I’ve ever had, bar none, and we haggled and dickered over the griddle this afternoon for the last pancake to soak up more of it.  Spring in Minnesota is delicious, thanks to the hard work of people like the Hoens.


*Family Farms sells their maple syrup for $6.00 per pint.  The farm doesn’t have a website.  Look for Deb at the Family Farms table at the Farmers’ Market in Excelsior, Minnesota.  She also sells fresh eggs and a wide variety of homemade jams and jellies.


Graham Cracker Pancakes (here)

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Lana April 2, 2011 at 1:47 pm

Congratulations on your 100th post! I recently published my 100th, and feel a sense of accomplishment:)
We live in SoCal now, but for years we lived in Michigan and Ohio, where there were maple sugar farms abounding. I remember being a chaperone on my daughter’s field trip. Learning about the whole process was an eye-opener, and tasting the fresh maple syrup was divine:) The fake stuff does not enter our house (my American husband was a bit addicted to the taste of the pretend maple syrup, but we fixed that:)
I enjoy reading your blog, and your photos are gorgeous.

2 Laura April 2, 2011 at 1:51 pm

Congratulation on your 100th! And thank you…

3 Meagan @ Scarletta Bakes April 2, 2011 at 3:15 pm

Gosh do I love reading your blog. Your adventures with your daughter sound so fun and your photography is a spectacular illustration of your finds. I also love that you support local businesses like the Hoen’s farm. I can’t wait to try these pancakes and I look forward to your next post!

4 Laura April 2, 2011 at 5:06 pm

Oh, thank you so much!

5 Tracey April 2, 2011 at 9:31 pm

Just found your blog – and love this post! I grew up in Vermont, and used to help one of my neighbors collect sap in the afternoons. I live in North Carolina now, but still order my maple syrup from a family-owned sugar shack in Vermont. Thanks for bringing back memories!

6 Laura April 2, 2011 at 9:51 pm

Thank you! Visiting farms like this makes me want to buy one and move to the country.

7 Pei-Lin April 3, 2011 at 11:02 pm

Laura, upon discovering you through Honest Cooking last week, I finally found some time to “listen” to your stories over here. Beautiful stories! Well written.

You know why I was excited upon finding your blog? Here is another Minnesotan! (The same happened when I discovered Cooking for Seven, Erica Lea’s blog, who is based in northern Minnesota.) I’m actually from Malaysia, and has returned home upon graduation, after a three-year stay in Bemidji. Reading your words brings me back to Minnesota. (Oh, I miss the life back in America.) My American family friends also churn out artisan syrup at this time of year, with the maples in their 40-acre backyard. I was totally blown away the first time I saw it, as a city girl who grew up in a crowded Asian metropolis.

“Spring in Minnesota is delicious …” — agreed, albeit too cold for me, still. Haha! Another exciting part about the spring in Minnesota has to do with rhubarb, particularly late in the spring. I got to visit with an American expat here in Kuala Lumpur, the thing we miss a lot would be rhubarb. It’s not easily accessible and pricey.

Thank you so much for such a beautiful blog. Keep it up!

With warmest regards, all the way from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

8 Laura April 4, 2011 at 7:36 am

Oh, thank you for introducing yourself, Pei-Lin. I was so happy to read about our Minnesota connection. And thank you so much for your kind words. I am touched. Rhubarb is my favorite food hands down. I wish I could tie up a big bundle when it grows up and mail it to you to enjoy! If you’re ever back, you should stop by and I’ll make a rhubarb pie or crumble or some jam. I have never been to Malaysia. Someday perhaps!

9 Pei-Lin April 4, 2011 at 10:27 pm

Awww … That would be very sweet of you to do so! Both Stitch (the American expat whom I mentioned) and I would get excited at the sight of rhubarb!

Yes, I’ve made it a point that I’d visit with my “family” and friends back in Minnesota (it’s my second home on earth) — not a one-time thingy. Some of them in the Twin Cities area, while the rest are way up in Bemidji. Of course, money is the biggest concern. Struggling to save up. Haha!

Oh, and yes! Please drop me a note when you’re planning on a trip to Malaysia. In fact, my American best friend and her boyfriend (both Prior Lake natives) will be staying in Southeast Asia for 10 months, beginning May, and during which we are hoping for a reunion. (Been close to two years since I left the States.)

Anyhow, I’ll definitely be back to “listen” to your stories. You can visit with me over on my journal, if you have the time. Take care. =)

10 Laura April 4, 2011 at 11:10 pm

Well, I will be in touch if I’m on my way to Malaysia, and you do the same if you are coming to Minnesota, then. I’m enjoying your blog. The matcha cheesecake caught my eye today…

11 Kris Jacobson April 12, 2011 at 1:08 pm

What a beautiful photo of Sophia.
What’s the address for Honest Cooking?

12 Laura April 14, 2011 at 9:30 am

Kris, You can click the icon in the righthand margin, or go to

13 Leigh Ann May 11, 2011 at 9:26 pm

Greetings- I was first introduced to your blog by Bill several months ago & I was very impressed , and then tonight Frances suggested that I read about your chicks. I’m so glad I did! You are such an amazing artist- your photography & words are so poetic. I just read your story about the maple farm & syrup making to my husband & he said “that was like reading a Nat’l Geographic piece”. I look forward to reading more, and to meeting you one day!
Leigh Ann

14 Laura May 11, 2011 at 11:25 pm

Oh my, I don’t know quite what to say. Thank you so much. That is so kind of you.

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