March is Maple Syrup Time in Illinois

March 25, 2011 at 8:39 am

Thomas Leavitt

Editor’s Note: Last fall, area chef, Tom Leavitt organized a “crop mob”.  A whole host of us rode a biodiesel bus to Spence Farm to spend a day as farm hands.  We threshed sorghum and planted garlic.  We learned about the farm, including touring the maple house.  Several months later, Tom returned to see that maple house in action.

Making Maple Syrup  on Spence Farm

Our visit March 5th to Spence Farm brought us full circle through the seasons. My wife Lori, friend Lorelle and I had driven down from Chicago to Fairbury to see how maple syrup is produced and to help the Travis family for the day. The late Winter chill and dampness underfoot had us wondering about our offer as we walked across the fields to the tree line at edge of the farm. Arriving at the syrup shed, our doubts disappeared as the warmth of the wood-stove and sweet aroma of boiling syrup greeted us warmly as did Marty, Kris and Will. A year earlier, in late March, we’d visited for the first time after the maple syrup season had just ended.  I’d contacted the Travises then looking for their organic Iroquois corn and was graciously invited to visit.  We also returned for a community potluck held on the farm and again in October with a “Crop Mob” that I’d organized to help them with their harvest.


Truly a family enterprise, 20 year old Will Travis is the driving force behind the operation.  He resurrected the dormant maple syrup operation as a 10 year old in 2002.  The history of syrup making on the farm stretches back all the way to Will’s 8th great-grandfather who settled the farm in 1830.  The grandfather learned how to make syrup from the native Americans living in the area. Syrup making continued on the farm until the 1950’s when is was abandoned.  



Maple syrup production hasn’t changed much since Will’s great-grandfather’s time. Tap the trees, collect the sap, boil it down to syrup. It is a labor intensive and weather dependent undertaking.  The sap buckets are collected by hand and carried to the collection tank outside the syrup house. The ground is usually too soft and muddy this time of year for a truck to make the rounds among the some 300 trees that Will and the family tap. When the sap is flowing especially well, they’ve stationed a series of blue 55 gallon barrels to siphon the sap from barrel to barrel to make the collection work less backbreaking.  I made several trips from the maple grove to collection tank with fully laden five gallon buckets at 40 pounds each and could only imagine a full day’s work collecting sap from each tree.spence1

The weather is also important. Daytime temperatures must be above freezing and nighttime temperatures must be below freezing for the sap to flow.  Copious amounts of firewood must also be collected to keep the boiler/evaporator going all day.

When you think about maple syrup, Vermont, Canada or Wisconsin come to mind, and Will’s maple taps are just one of only three commercial maple syrup operations in Illinois. The production is not large by any standard, last year’s production was only 50 gallons for a short, three week season. The Travises are hoping for a longer season and to double their production this year. To produce one gallon of syrup, 41 gallons of sap must be boiled. They needn’t worry about selling their production. It is already spoken for to their list of chef clients from Chicago to whom they supply a wide range of farm products throughout the year.

When Will first started up the syrup operation, he began with his 6th great grandpa’s syrup shed and equipment and recruited his friends to help.  When he reached the point where he wanted to integrate it into the farm production, he realized that he needed better equipment and facilities.  He applied for and received a grant from the Frontera Farmer Foundation to upgrade the enterprise.  After purchasing a new evaporator and equipment, Will and his friends poured a concrete floor and constructed a new house next to the old shed.  


Once we’d filled the storage tank, we spent the the day hauling firewood, warming up in the syrup house and catching up with Marty, Kris, and Will.  We’d now visited Spence Farm in every season of the year.  With each visit we learn more about the Travises devotion to sustainable farming and the amazing creativity that they display in their organic oasis in Livingston County, Illinois.