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Enjoying the sweet rewards of nature

Fourth generation “sugar maker” Anthony Renken '14, '17 (second from left) is pictured (l-r) on his Northwoods Maple Farm with grandfather and mentor, Harry Tritten; son, Hunter Renken; and brother, Matt Renken.

The majority of Anthony Renken’s favorite lifetime memories pertain to the countless times he has spent relaxing alone in the woods of rural Merrill, Wisconsin. As a fourth generation “sugar maker,” Anthony grew up enjoying nature’s peaceful moments and the almost hypnotizing sound of sap as it slowly dripped from a maple tree and pinged against the bottom of a metal bucket.

Today, with the assistance of his wife, Becky, Anthony feels blessed to have the opportunity to share with the public a lifetime of experience in making maple syrup. As owners of Northwoods Maple Farm, the couple combines family traditions with new technology in the specialized creation of pure artisan maple syrup.

“My true passion has always been the outdoors, walking in the woods and taking in the sights and sounds of nature,” Anthony said. “I knew if I could find a business that revolved around nature, I’d never feel as if I was working another day in my life. So, since I have been collecting sap since the age of 5 or 6, I thought maybe Rebecca and I could start making syrup for more than just our family and friends.”

As a child, Anthony was provided a one-gallon bucket to gather sap while the adults carried five-gallon pails. Although the bucket was smaller, the now 32-year-old smiled reminiscing that this also meant he completed multiple trips to the same tree to collect all of its sap.

Anthony Renken steps into his forestry processor on his rural Merrill, Wisconsin, farm. Anthony and his wife, Becky, founded Northwoods Maple Farm in 2015 on the very property Anthony’s grandparents started sugaring on over 60 years ago.

Anthony credits his grandfather, Harry Tritten, for serving as his childhood mentor and providing him the value of hard work, ingenuity, honesty, respect, and how to lead your life. Unfortunately, Harry died from cancer in February 2018 and didn’t get to experience sugaring with his grandson’s modern setup.

“Grandpa was a man with little formal education but exceptionally talented and mechanically inclined with the ability to fabricate, fix and create almost anything,” Anthony said. “Grandpa was hesitant about change and technology, but if he could have witnessed me putting all of the skills he taught me to use, he would have been impressed and likely would have marveled at the modern process in action.”

Anthony and Becky, also a fourth-generation sugar maker, founded Northwoods Maple Farm in 2015 on the very property Anthony’s grandparents started sugaring on over 60 years ago. While continuing to use wood as the main fuel source, among other traditions, the Renkens now use modern technology to expedite the overall process.

“We continue the legacy my grandparents started all those years ago, sharing our traditions, time and work ethic to educate the community about maple trees, sap and syrup,” Anthony said. “We continue to be stewards of the land, practicing sustainable timber management and tapping practices to ensure future generations the opportunity to enjoy our natural resources.”

He explains that the principles of tapping trees and cooking sap have remained the same. Even though digital equipment is now used, workers still need to check the sap and syrup with a hydrometer. In addition, Mother Nature continues to have the final say related
to the freeze and thaw cycles required to gather the sap from the sugar, red and soft maple trees in the spring.

While he grew up, Anthony’s family operated a very traditional setup. They would carry buckets to a collection tank, cook on a flat pan, and spend days in the timber just to produce a couple gallons of syrup. Today, sap is transported from approximately 3,000 trees to the sugar house via 84,000 feet of tubing and vacuum-pumped into storage tanks. The 55-gallon drums are now filled in less than an hour. Anthony also noted that the modern technology allows for an increase in sap yield per tap and an increase in processing capabilities.

The Northwoods Maple Farm sap is transported from approximately 3,000 trees to the sugar house via 84,000 feet of tubing. The 4×16 Leader Evaporator evaporates approximately 400 gallons of sap per hour.

Anthony initially chose to attend UIU because its online program gave him the flexibility to work full time and still help Rebecca raise their children, Hunter, 9, and Harley, 6. He was soon pleased to discover that the University’s online and Wausau Center evening classes promoted interaction between the professors and classmates.

“UIU’s business programs are top notch because of the professors and their passion for teaching,” Anthony said. “The professors provide a great influence not only through their understanding of the educational materials but also due to their years of experience in the field. It is one thing for someone to teach but another to do and teach others to do the same.”

Today, Anthony continues to credit his UIU education for strengthening his critical-thinking skills and helping to formulate his business’s analytical practices. To help keep the property in the family’s name, he focused reports required for both his bachelor’s (’14) and master’s (’17) business degrees on the viability of maple syrup production.

“While attending Upper Iowa, I most enjoyed learning and stretching my mind to better understand subjects and material I previously had little or no expertise in,” he said. “Without the ability to understand, a person lacks the ability to think and ask questions. Striving to achieve greatness is not easy, but with the support of the UIU professors and staff I was able to advance my career and start my business venture.”

In addition to achieving a strong education, Anthony praises his parents, Alan Renken and Gail Daley, for a lifetime of support, continuously advocating a hard work ethic, and instilling the drive and determination to realize his career goals.

“Becky has been with me since the beginning,” Anthony added. “We’ve had many adventures − raising two children, caring for our grandparents, chasing careers, furthering our education, starting a business, and through it all she taught me about unconditional love. Without her understanding and personal sacrifices, we would not be where we are today.”

The high school sweethearts look forward to expanding their family-owned business over the next few years. In 2019, the Renkens plan to tap 7,000 trees over 120 acres and tap upwards of 20,000 trees over 360 acres in five years.

“In business you reap what you sow,” Anthony said. “When success is dictated by your personal efforts then the world is your oyster. A business is what you make of it and your passion is directly tied to its results.”

In the maple syrup business, that is an especially sweet proposition.

A few sweet facts

  • Maple sap is collected in the early spring, when temperatures get below freezing at night and above freezing during the day.

    The filter press filters the syrup and transports the product into 55-gallon barrels.

  • It takes approximately 40 gallons of maple sap to make one gallon of pure maple syrup.
  • Nothing is added to the sap; water is simply evaporated away to make pure maple syrup.
  • Each tap can yield up to 10-plus gallons of sap per season on a gravity system, resulting in approximately one quart of finished syrup.
  • Vacuum collection systems will yield approximately twice the sap of a gravity system.
  • Pure maple syrup is a great natural food. It contains no preservatives, colorings or other additives.

For additional information about Northwoods Maple Farm visit the company website or Facebook page.

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