Making maple syrup isn’t just a fundraiser for Randy Klawitter, executive director of Wilderness Fellowship Ministries. It’s also a metaphor for life. The Frederic, Wis.-based camp welcomes guests for faith retreats and Klawitter sees plenty of spiritual lessons from syrup making.
“A sugar maker has to know when to take the sap off the fire or it’ll burn,” he said. “If we learn to endure difficult times in life, there’s a sweetness that comes from that.”
He added as another example that to begin the whole process, a sugar maker must “wound” the tree to tap it, much like many “sweet” times in one’s life begin with a painful experience.
Jokingly, he also likens making maple syrup to a “disease” since he continues to expand and upgrade the operation.
On a small scale, Klawitter had been making maple syrup since he was a 7th grader, using an old copper boiler on a pot bellied stove.
His father founded the camp and eventually, Klawitter took the helm. In 1970, he had an opportunity to purchase a few thousand taps, buckets and lids.
While Klawitter saw a possibility for a fundraising stream, “I didn’t think we should start with that many,” he said.
After thinking it over and praying about it, he realized that using camp funds for something that could raise money represented a better investment than low-yielding interest bank accounts. He bought $40,000 of equipment through an internal loan--borrowing from one of the non-profit’s accounts--and set up the maple operation with help from volunteer labor.
The first year, using 950 taps on a pipeline and 800 buckets, Wilderness Fellowship made and sold $39,000 of syrup.
“That was pretty amazing for us,” Klawitter said. “It was a good year to have a good year.”
Families visiting the facility during sugaring season help out and Klawitter invites volunteers to assist. Initially, he used a team of horses and bobsled to transport sap. He later moved to a Jeep on which he mounted collection tanks in the back.
As the years passed, fewer staff members had young people at home who could come help. Klawitter realized that switching to higher production methods would help raise more money with fewer workers.
“You’re tied up for that six to eight weeks,” Klawitter said. “You might as well do it big.”
With his “go big or go home” attitude established, Klawitter enlisted a friend to scope out unused acreage on the camp that could prove successful sugar bush. By expanding his organization’s sugar bush, he could change the group’s tax status to agricultural for the additional sugar bush since Wisconsin-based non-profit organizations may claim only 30 acres as tax exempt.
Using gravity-fed tubing in this area helped decrease labor demands since its name, “Billy Goat Hill”, accurately describes the steep terrain. Later, a nearby hill, “Susie Goat Hill” was added.
“You wouldn’t want to carry five-gallon buckets of sap up and down those hills,” Klawitter said.
Instead of building another system on the other side of the hill, they hired a horizontal boring machine for $2,600 to bore 230 fee through the hill to come out on the other side. That effort added 265 taps.
With the 52-inch drop, sap flows well. Adding the “goat” hills cost around $6,500.
With a small loan in 2009, Wilderness Fellowship added to the maple operation a vacuum system, 5-by-14 cooker, Steamaway, Leader evaporator pan and electricity.
“Prior to this, we didn’t have any electricity in the sugar shack,” Klawitter said. “Our previous 3-by-10 Leader evaporator was run from a 12-volt battery.”
Running the evaporator on wood lends to the rustic atmosphere of the camp. A nearby commercial food plant bottles the syrup.
Wilderness Fellowship markets syrup to guests and through a few local chiropractic offices, large church bookstores and local shops. Klawitter said he encourages guests to purchase cases to take home for their own fund raisers, such as a youth group trip.
Last season, Wilderness Fellowship made about 25,000 gallons of sap with a sugar content of 2.5 percent. Klawitter said that sale of additional syrup from the pipeline benefits the ministry to the tune of $15,000 to $20,000 annually.
Wilderness Fellowship operates on a donation basis. Campers pay whatever donation they can afford. If they cannot meet the suggested donation, they’re still welcome, as the ministry doesn’t want to turn away campers based on financial need.
“People who desperately need to hear the voice of God can get alone with him here,” Klawitter said. “Families are such attack these days. We want to encourage moms and dads and their kids in godliness in every way.”
Wilderness Fellowship owns 250 acres of property on two lakes. Unlike many camps with numerous activities and programs, Wilderness Fellowship offers low-key, basic camping.
The camp has no television disallows use of media devices for entertainment. The idea is that getting away from these distractions can help people get back to their spiritual needs.
In addition to helping the camp meet its operating expenses, the sugar making endeavor “is educational for families when they come to the sugar shack,” Klawitter said. “I can explain to them what is happening and they can see the sap coming into the cooker, syrup coming out and the steady stream of distilled water coming out of the cooker. People are amazed of the whole process.”
Originally published in The Maple News in October 2017.