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Liquid gold: Kansas teens tap into artisan maple business

Amy Hadachek | Cuba, Kan.

Two Kansas teenagers have struck gold, or at least liquid gold. Their own Kansas yellow brick road actually encompasses 52 miles of roadway; along which they tap Kansas maple trees to produce home-grown maple syrup.

Now in their third year as formidable manufacturers in the increasingly competitive global maple syrup industry, 15-year old Brandon Shrader and his younger brother Ryan, 13, of Norway, Kan., have literally built their business.

“We are in the process of building a new sugar shack that is a more permanent build, so that we can house our new evaporator that our partner Jim Elliott purchased last year. We expect to tap the same number of trees as last year, but hopefully more,” Brandon said. “We mostly tap Silver Maple trees and any Sugar Maples we can find.”

Their proud parents Brad and Kristy Shrader said Brandon and Ryan recently earned a purple ribbon at the North Central Kansas Free Fair in August 2014 for their first-ever “Mini-Sugar Shack.”

“Actually the Sugar Shack at the fair was a small version the boys put together for a float in the Courtland, (Kansas) Fun Day Parade and although it was quickly put-together, it turned out wonderfully,” Kristy said.

“We even used authentic steam created by dry ice,” Brandon said. “We hope to take it to the fair again next year, as part of an educational exhibit in the open class.”

When the Shrader brothers first launched their business of tapping maple trees, it was full steam ahead. They credit their mentor Jim Elliott for the continuing opportunity and knowledge to produce maple syrup in Kansas. Jim and his wife Lynn own and live on the property of their bed and breakfast log cabin retreat at Marshview overlooking the Jamestown Wildlife Refuge in nearby Cloud County, Kan.

In fact, in just the first year on the job going door-to-door; asking neighbors if they could tap their trees, the boys tapped a total of 200 trees and collected 400 gallons of sap, which boils down to seven and a half gallons of syrup.

For more simplified mathematics, Brandon explained it this way: “We collected enough sap for almost eight gallons of syrup total at a boil down rate of 50-60 gallons of sap per gallon of syrup.”

Interestingly, the Shrader boys and Elliot harvest the sap during only two months of the year, February and March, because the air temperature must be above freezing during the day, and then below freezing at night.

“The tree sap comes up in the top of the tree during the day, then drains down to the roots at night, and then continues to go up and down. So, when we drill the tree, it relieves the pressure,” Brandon said.

Elliott said he thoroughly enjoys working with the Shrader brothers, noting they are very well-rounded kids.

“They go to our church. I was looking for a kid to mow for me, and Brandon also helped me with carpentry work on a covered bridge. Now, we’re just about finished with the new 16’ x 20’ sugar shack to make our maple syrup. The boys do a lot of the leg work, and I get the sap,” Elliott said. “I did it all myself during my first year, but I only processed about 100 gallons of sap, which provided two gallons of syrup.” When Elliott teamed up with the Shrader brothers, the trees they tapped last year produced 600 gallons of sap, which boiled down to about 12 gallons of maple syrup.

Kansas is making a mark on the maple syrup production industry, however Vermont is the largest maple syrup producing state, capturing nearly 6 percent of the world’s supply. Globally, Quebec, Canada is considered the largest maple syrup producer with $140 million in exports.

Brandon and Ryan have learned some important lessons along the way about the business.

“Don’t put your thumb on the tap when you are pounding it in the tree!” said Brandon, noting, “It hurts.” “Also, I learned that the new syrup press we got this year can filter and make the syrup even more clear,” Ryan said.

Just about everything that the brothers touch turns to gold. Throughout the year, during the warmer spring and summer months, as the brothers joined their parents each weekend at the Belleville, Kan., Farmers Market on the lawn of the historic Republic County Courthouse Square, numerous glass jars of their maple syrup sold like hotcakes.

“In fact, oftentimes, the boys’ share of the maple syrup is already sold before the farmers market season even starts. So, then they are working on selling Jim’s share of the products,” Kristy said. Brandon and Ryan’s parents are also well-respected agriculture growers, and sell homegrown vegetables at the farmers market, including garden-fresh tomatoes, green beans, cucumbers, onions, sweet corn, potatoes, yellow squash, spaghetti squash, cabbage, okra snf apples. They try growing exciting new crops each year.

During the colder months, the Belleville Farmers Market moves inside the nearby Belleville Public Library, and continues to be a popular Saturday morning stop for the public. As the brothers join their parents at the farmers market, they learn the value of their family-grown produce and products.

“Both Brandon and Ryan are hard workers, and know how to have fun while they work. They eat what we grow, try new recipes and even help preserve produce to eat throughout the year. They know our farmers market income is what we set aside for mission money, and they want to be part of the mission work, too,” Kristy said. The brothers, who are being home-schooled again this school year, are also enhancing their education through national and international experiences from their mission trips. In fact, Brandon, Ryan and Kristy just returned from a short mission trip to Moore, Okla., working with Church of the Harvest to provide continued assistance to rebuild after the devastating tornadoes.

“We’re also planning to give our land a rest next year and focus on some of our family missions, such as adopting children into our family. We’re also planning a return mission trip to Haiti when we can, and Voice of the Martyrs. We’re also sending our dad to Cuenca, Ecuador to finish a church-building project, which we started there. We are also exploring other possibilities including traveling with Samaritan’s Purse and other relief organizations, Global Partners, and a Trash Mountain mission trip in early 2016,” Brandon said.

Not only do Brandon and Ryan enjoy the maple syrup business, they thrive on sharing their agriculture specialty techniques and business acumen with others.

As role models for other future young entrepreneurs, the Shraders were a popular draw last summer during a presentation to youth at the Republic County Historical Society Museum in Belleville, Kan.

Children in the audience in mid-June 2014 were awestruck by the brothers’ enjoyable delivery of their knowledge of the timeless trade, as well as the equipment and props they brought to explain their craft, which was interwoven with mirthful stories from the affable brothers.

Interestingly, the Shrader brothers’ goals and business are also their hobby.

“My goal is to sell syrup to someone in every state of the continental United States,” said Brandon, adding, “It is largely a hobby that I hope to make enough money at, to pay for my other hobbies.”

Along the way, and in between miles and miles of sugar, the Kansas brothers are enjoying their own proverbial yellow brick road.

As Ryan put it, “This is liquid gold.” ❖


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