On a sunny spring day in 2015, David Knudson was admiring the Norway maple trees in front of his home in Missoula, Montana when a question occurred to him. Could these trees be tapped for maple syrup?
Knudson, a man with an interest in unique agricultural opportunities, took to YouTube, teaching himself the basics of tree tapping. He invested in ten spiles and ten tubes, and when sugaring season rolled around the following year, Knudson tapped the boulevard trees outside his house.
Within days, the taps had been removed, and Knudson had reason to believe the city of Missoula was responsible. Being unsure of the rules regarding tree tapping, Knudson called city officials and posed a hypothetical question: If you saw taps in a tree, what would you do? They told him they would remove the equipment, as urban sugaring was against city code.
But that wasn’t the end for Knudson. Instead, he turned to neighbors and nearby homeowners, asking if he could tap the trees in front of their houses. It turns out that the city defines ownership as 55 percent of a tree, so depending on where the property line falls, some of the trees that homeowners thought they owned were actually on city property. On more than one occasion, Knudson pleaded his case with city officials, emphasizing his care for the trees and his commitment to strategies to minimize negative environmental effects. But the answer still came back as a firm no.
After four years of back and forth with the city—whose concerns about Knudson’s enterprise ranged from copy-cat tappers to negative impacts on tree health—he now does most of his tapping and sap collection on private land. Throughout Missoula, and down the nearby Bitterroot Valley, Knudson has created a patchwork forest of permission. With the aid of OnX mapping services, he identified maples in the area by their brilliant fall foliage and then set about securing approval from the landowners to tap. He was able to get city permission to tap trees along the Missoula irrigation ditch, which cuts across the city, and he has a number of additional tree stands in and around Missoula to which he is allowed access. Currently, he has approval to tap 400 trees, about double the number he has tapped in years past.
Knudson is the only commercially licensed maple syrup producer in the state, with his company Montana MapleWorks. While sugaring has long been a standard practice on the East Coast, it’s been slower to catch on in western states. Knudson simply had the vision and motivation to do what hadn’t been done before. With a long brown beard and flyaway curly hair streaked with an occasional strand of gray, Knudson has an open demeanor, smiling and laughing easily. Born in Butte, Montana, he spent much of his adolescence in California. As a child, Knudson was into gleaning fruit, and he eventually got his degree in ecological agriculture.
Knudson operates his sugaring business almost as a hobby. He does most of the tapping and syrup production himself, and he takes a certain amount of pride in the fact that, to his knowledge, he’s the only person in the U.S. operating an urban syrup business.
Inspired by the different tastes of different trees, Knudson doesn’t care about traditional ideas of which trees can and cannot be tapped for sap. While Norway maples are the dominant species in his scattered sugarbush, Knudson taps box elder, silver maples, sugar maples and black maples.
“There’s no acknowledgement of the different flavors,” says Knudson. Box elder is a favorite of his, which he says tastes like cotton candy.
Knudson is optimistic and positive, but the hurdles he’s had to overcome to reach this stage of his business make him hesitant to embrace that urban sugaring is widely viable. For one, there’s the 12- to 14-point health guideline list to consider. But, more importantly, there is tree health to take into consideration. “When you have urban planted trees, they’re pretty much acting on their own,” says Knudson. “It’s more stress.”
Michael Farrell, former director of the Uihlein Forest for Cornell University and current CEO of one of the largest syrup companies in the U.S., is leading a research grant program in which Knudson is a participant, the broad goal of which is to develop syrup in the intermountain West.
Farrell described Knudson as an entrepreneur and pioneer in the effort to expand the boundaries of maple syrup production. “What [Knudson] has proven in Montana is that it’s a viable enterprise,” says Farrell. “It’s not hurting the trees; they’re doing just fine.”
Knudson has faced his fair share of challenges as he forges a path for his business. In addition to what Farrell sees as a lack of knowledge on the part of the city, Knudson has dealt with vandalism of his sugaring equipment, particularly to his taps along the irrigation ditch. “It makes me weary about how sustainable that is,” says Knudson. “It does get frustrating.”
Farrell has also been irritated on Knudson’s behalf. “It’s too bad more people don’t understand what he’s doing is a great thing,” says Farrell. “If you like maple trees, you should be encouraging people to tap them, because it makes them a cultural and economic mainstay of your community.”
Last year’s season was a lean year for sap. Norway maples were introduced to Missoula in the 1890s as boulevard trees, in part because of their stress tolerance, but the increasingly long and dry summers are taking their toll. Knudson observes a tree’s health for a year before tapping, and he’s noticing how many are affected by the hot summers. “That’s what I’m competing against,” he says, “more than anything.”
Now in the midst of his seventh tapping season, Knudson is aiming to tap all 400 trees, despite the workload and stress that can bring. “I’m kind of at the point now where making the syrup is just second nature to me,” he says.