DURANGO, Iowa (AP) — Deb Zenner’s business might involve producing maple syrup and honey. But for her, the sweetest parts of the job are her interactions with customers at local farmers markets where she sells her wares.
“I enjoy talking to people about my products, teaching people, listening to them and how they include my products in their meals and dishes,” she said.
Deb and her husband, Tony Zenner, launched Timber Range Farm in 2016. On their wooded Durango property, they tap maple and walnut trees and process the sap into syrup and sugar.
They also raise bees and harvest honey and beeswax, selling the products at many area markets.
“There’s a lot of outdoor work involved in it, and that’s what I like about it,” Tony told the Dubuque Telegraph Herald.
In 2016, their first year making maple syrup, the Zenners started small.
“We tapped 25 trees that first year, and I think we cooked (the sap) up in a turkey fryer,” Deb recalled.
The following year, the couple tapped 50 trees. Now, they tap up to 300 per year using a system of pipelines to run the sap down the hillside into large tanks that can hold up to 800 gallons.
They employ a reverse osmosis process to remove about 50% of the water from the sap, which then is boiled in a large machine called an evaporator.
Tony and Deb usually begin tapping their trees in February, but the exact date is entirely weather-dependent, Deb said.
“The high temperature has to go above 40 (degrees), but then below freezing at night. That’s what starts the sap running in the trees,” she said.
The sap season can last from two to eight weeks, depending on temperatures. As soon as the trees begin to bud, taps must be pulled so that the tree can use the sap for its spring growth, Deb said.
The Zenners also tap walnut trees on their property, but walnut sap has more pectin than maple sap and runs much more slowly.
From 300 maple trees, the couple can end up with about 130 to 150 gallons of finished maple syrup, while more than 100 walnut trees might yield only two to three gallons of syrup.
Although the syrups are certainly popular items at Tony and Deb’s market stands, customers also are drawn to the snacks they make from the maple products, including granola, maple nuts, candies and cotton candy.
“Maple syrup isn’t just for pancakes anymore,” Deb said, noting that she has customers who will mix the sweet syrup into meats or top their popcorn with maple sugar.
Timber Range Farm is a small operation compared to other local maple syrup producers, Tony said. But the couple focuses on quality rather than quantity, and their work has paid off.
At an international maple syrup conference in 2019, the Zenners earned third place for their maple syrup in one of the contest’s categories.
“We aren’t about producing a lot in terms of maple syrup, but for us, it’s plenty,” Tony said. “We try to produce the best product possible, and we’re always trying to stay up on the latest and the greatest.”
The Zenners’ initial desire to raise bees wasn’t necessarily for the honey the insects produced, but rather for their ability to pollinate the apple trees on the couple’s property.
“That’s how we started, and it just went crazy from there,” Tony said.
Today, they have more than 20 beehives on their property and at several other locations.
Tony usually harvests honey in August and September, after the colonies have grown throughout the summer.
He will remove the upper boxes of the beehive — which the bees have filled with honey — then use a specialized piece of equipment called an extractor to spin the honey out of the frame.
Despite the limited harvest season, beekeeping is a year-round project. Tony checks the hives regularly, treating them for diseases and mites and making sure none are becoming overcrowded.
He also hangs boxes called “swarm traps” on nearby trees so that, if a hive decides to swarm and fly away, the bees could make their home in the box and he won’t lose the entire hive.
“One thing about beekeeping — there is no right and wrong way,” he said. “You’ll ask three beekeepers and you’ll get nine answers, and none of them are wrong.”
Ensuring the insects survive through the winter is particularly challenging. The Zenners add sugar and food patties to supplement the bees’ winter store of honey and prevent them from starving.
They typically close up the hives for the winter in late November and don’t reopen them until April to keep the bees as warm as possible.
Deb said bees cluster together to keep the hive’s temperature around 80 degrees, but an early thaw can lead them to separate too soon, and a spring cold snap can be deadly.
“Many (beekeepers) are thrilled with a 50% survival rate,” she said.
In addition to honey, Timber Range Farm also sells beeswax, which Deb said has been growing in popularity.
In fact, she has noticed an increased local interest in all homegrown products in recent years, which she attributes in part to the COVID-19 pandemic and area residents’ desire for nutritious options.
“People are very much into natural food and eating healthy and using local (products) and things like that,” she said. “It’s been good.”