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Tapping innovation: Lyle Robinson produces maple syrup at his Laporte home

Lyle Robinson constructed his own efficient, maple syrup-processing center on his wooded property near Laporte. Two steep wood piles provide fuel for the wood-burning stoves. "My dad always told me, 'If you know how much you've got, you haven't got enough,'" he joked. (Photos by Shannon Geisen/Enterprise)1 / 5
Cooking sap produces excess amounts of steam -- that's why it must initially be done outdoors. Carole Robinson skims excess foam off the surface of the boiling sap and discards it.2 / 5
Lyle constructed his stoves out of a fuel barrel.3 / 5
Raw sap darkens and its bubbles become smaller as it approaches the final stages of boiling.4 / 5
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About a mile-and-a-half south of Laporte, on "Lake Floatapoochie" (it's a long story), sits Lyle Robinson's maple syrup empire.

It's something of a technical marvel.

Robinson, who served as a District 4's Hubbard County Commissioner for 25 years (1987-2012), has not been idle since he left politics.

Roughly five years ago, he learned about tapping sugar maple trees through a University of Minnesota Extension program. The longtime beekeeper then developed an impressive sap-processing apparatus.

The back of his truck is filled with 25-gallon pails, which he uses for collecting sap.

"I'm the pail king, I'll tell ya," says Robinson.

With permission from six lake lot owners on Garfield Lake, he harvests the natural sweetener. (They also receive 10 percent of the delicious end product).

Any species of maple tree — sugar, black, red, silver maple or box elder — can be tapped.

"I have about 300 taps," he said, selecting trees that are more than 9 inches in diameter in locations that don't require a back-breaking haul.

Sap-laden buckets are heavy, as Lyle's wife, Carole, can attest to.

"It's fun, but it's a lot of work. I'm not as strong as I think I am. Those buckets are heavy," she said. "It's a workout."

Back at home, tubing from a 50-gallon barrel in Lyle's truck sends the sap into a 275-gallon tank that sits atop a tower.

"I just turn on the air compressor. It pressurizes the barrel. It takes about four minutes to empty it," he explains.

Additional pipes feed the sap from the tank into large metal pots placed on two wood-burning stoves. Each made-from-scratch stove is capable of cooking about 200 gallons of sap a day.

Lyle purchased two fuel oil barrels, cut off their tops and welded frames for them.

"There is no top in this stove," he points out. Long heating pans rest on the frame, directly above the flames.

On one stove, Lyle manually controls the flow of sap into the pans via a spigot.

"Like grandma's old kettle, it plugged up," he said, so he adopted a new strategy.

He built a second stove and added a brass toilet valve.

"That keeps the sap level at all times. So this one runs automatic, other than the dogs won't put the wood in."

(He has two Boxers, Bonnie and Cookie.)

He also placed cement blocks and entombed the stoves in dirt "because before if you had Carharts on" — Lyle displays his burned and scarred pointer finger — "we were losing a lot of heat. You don't realize how hot it gets."

He tries to run sap so it's at least one-and-a-half inches deep in the pan or it will burn.

He can hook a vacuum cleaner pipe to one stove and force air into it, when needed.

"I can get the stove bright red. It really boils then."

Last year, Lyle harvested a remarkable 3,345 gallons of sap.

"It was a tremendous year," he said. "This year, I'm under 600 gallons."

Generally, 40 gallons of sap generally yields one gallon of syrup.

"This year, it's 31 gallons to 1. Some years, it's 40 to 1."

Sap must be boiled soon after collecting it.

"It's like milk. It'll spoil. Anything like that that has sugar in it, it's gonna grow hair on it," he said.

The sap darkens as it condenses.

When it reaches the correct density, it is filtered and cooled. Sediment will settle at the bottom. The clear syrup is carefully poured off, heated to the proper temperature and canned hot.

"It's kinda fun. There's a lot more to it than just cooking it," Lyle says.

He credits his grandfather for his mechanical abilities and inventiveness.

"You don't have to be crazy to make maple syrup, but it's gonna make it a whole lot easier," he joked.