Current Issue -

Greens’ Sugar Bush

By Aryn Henning Nichols | Spring 2024 Inspire(d)

For many families in the area, it’s not spring without a trip to the annual Maple Festival at Greens’ Sugar Bush in rural Northeast Iowa.

Gideon Green was the first generation to arrive in Iowa in 1850, settling his family by the Yellow River in the Bloomfield Township of Winneshiek County, near present-day Castalia.

Many years and five generations later, Dale Green and his wife Karen maintained the land and home as they built up Spring Valley Farms, running a bull breeding operation and beef cattle farm. And across the gravel road sits a vast grove of maple trees that the Greens tap for sap every spring, carrying on a tradition that began in 1851 – just one year after Gideon Green decided to call Northeast Iowa home – making it the oldest continually operational business in Iowa.

The Greens have a good crew of family members and friends who help with sap and syrup season each spring at Greens’ Sugarbush in Castalia, Iowa. / Photo courtesy Greens’ Sugarbush

Starting each February, the family rallies together to pull sap from roughly 1,100 maple trees, collecting it in underground cisterns to await the cookhouse. When things are in full production mode, the evaporator is running every day, boiling sap into syrup, sugar, or candy. 

And then, ever since 1991, Greens’ Sugar Bush hosts the Maple Festival, inviting folks out to welcome in the new season and fresh syrup. It is an outdoor event, rain or shine (or snow – eek), always held the last Sunday in March and the first Sunday in April (unless Easter falls on one of those Sundays, like it does this year). 2024 Maple Festival dates are Saturday, March 30 and Sunday, April 7. 

“When we first started the pancake breakfast, we put up a big tent on the hillside above the evaporator building and used only one grill to make the pancakes,” says Jeni (Green) Melcher. “The picnic tables did not set level, so it was advantageous to sit on the uphill side just in case something got spilled.”

The Greens have been making pancakes for the Maple Festival since they started the event in 1991. / Photo courtesy Greens’ Sugarbush

They’ve learned a lot since then, fine-tuning table placement and the number of grills needed for the roughly 2000 people (give or take, weather-depending) who come out over the course of those two days to enjoy all-you-can-eat pancakes, sausage, applesauce, and drinks. And of course, real maple syrup. (Hot tip: You can bring your own container to buy bulk syrup for home, although they have pre-packaged options available as well). 

From the start, Dale and Karen taught their five daughters – Jody, Lori, Stacy, Jeni, and Wendy – the business of tapping and processing maple syrup. And in 2021, Jeni (daughter number four) took over as leader of the Greens’ Sugar Bush sap operation, along with her husband, Tom Melcher, and son, John.

The Melcher family has a dairy farm just south of the Sugarbush. It’s situated on land where Jeni’s great, great, great grandfather, Steven Allen, homesteaded and is across the road from the farm where Jeni grew up and her parents still live. Jeni and Tom do most of the Spring Valley Farms field work and help care for the small herd of beef cows still on site as Dale and Karen ease into retirement.

It’s a retirement well-earned. In addition to regular farm work, Dale and Karen have worked hard to create a legacy for generations to come in the form of conservation efforts on their land. In 2003 Dale Green received the National Cattlemen’s Association’s Region III Environmental Stewardship award, and in 2016 the State of Iowa Conservation Farmer of the year for his efforts to prevent run-off from the livestock operation reaching the Yellow River. They planted nearly 9,000 trees along the river, fenced off the waterway to keep his cattle away from it, and installed roughly a mile of stream bank stabilization.

Thinking about the future of the land and how it will suit the next generation is how legacies like the Greens’ are built. 

In this Q&A, Jeni (Green) Melcher reflects on being the sixth generation to carry on the traditions of Gideon Green, making syrup and making memories for families for years to come.

Jeni, Tom, & John Melcher / Photo courtesy Greens’ Sugarbush

Name: Jeni and Tom Melcher, John (14-year-old) 
Age: 48
Business: Greens Sugarbush
Year Business Established: 1851
Business address: 1411 111th Ave, Castalia, IA 52133
Website: Facebook page Greens’ Sugar Bush

1. Tell us about the “leap” moment. When did you decide to take the reins on the family business? 

My family has been making maple syrup in Iowa since 1851; I am the sixth generation to do so. After 173 years you hate to be the one that says, “Maybe not this year.” My parents were getting older, and it just seemed like the time to take over. This business is truly a family tradition. I have four sisters that all help, I am just the one that is in charge.

2. What’s the best thing about being your own boss? 

The best part is getting to carry on the tradition.  

3. How about the worst?  

The worst part is knowing that you are responsible for everything, there are days that you doubt the decisions that are made and wonder if after all these years you will be the one that does not succeed. 

4. How do you manage your life/work balance?  

The making of the maple syrup only last about two months. We sell syrup the rest of the year. The hardest part is that we are dependent on the weather. The season normally starts in early March and lasts until Mid-April. There will be times that we are working at the sugarbush every day and then there will be a cold or warm snap and we won’t have anything to do for a whole week. We are dairy farmers in real life so there are always chores to be done no matter what. We rely on family members to help out so that everything gets done.

Syrup boils in a pot for about an hour to become maple sugar candy. / Photo courtesy Greens’ Sugarbush

5. What’s something you look forward to each year when it’s time to harvest syrup?

The best part of the season is the “smell”. When we are making maple sugar candy the syrup gets to boil in a pot for about an hour. Just sitting watching the syrup boil and smelling it is the best. Second best is eating the warm maple sugar. I also love telling people our story. Every family has a unique history, ours just maybe a little sweeter than some. Just like I am the sixth generation to make the syrup, there are generations of people that have been coming to buy the syrup and that is a very special thing.

6. Is there something you don’t look forward to as well?

We have a saying about the syrup season – “We dread it coming, the middle of the season is kind of fun, then you can’t wait for it to be done.” When the temperatures start to warm in the spring we know that the syrup season and all the work that goes into it is almost here, then once the trees are tapped, help has been found and everything is up and going it is fun. 

As I said before, we are dairy farmers. Those chores still need to be done every day, as the spring moves along there is field work that needs to be done, about that time the syrup season gets wrapped up, so we move on to the next thing. There is no way we could carry on the tradition without our family members and some good friends.

Maple sugar candy ready to be tasted. / Photos courtesy Greens’ Sugarbush

7. Do you see the Greens’ family tradition of syrup-making continuing into the future? 

The world around us is continuously changing, but some things still stay the same. This year is shaping up to be a challenge. The February weather says it is time to make syrup, but the calendar says to wait a couple more weeks. But my husband and I will go out and tap the trees, signaling the start of yet another season. I am confident that we will gather sap at least once and boil it down to syrup and the tradition that my family started so many years ago will have continued. Will it be a great year, nobody knows, but that almost does not matter. Carrying on the tradition is more important. The older trees in the timber have literally been tapped by generations of my family, but there are getting to be fewer and fewer of them. Just like the next generation of Greens is learning how to make syrup, the next generation of trees is slowly growing along with them to hopefully be ready to take the older generations place when the time comes, but nothing in the world is guaranteed.

2024 Greens’ Sugar Bush Maple Festival dates (rain or shine): 
Saturday, March 30, 10am – 2pm 
Sunday, April 7, 10am – 2pm