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Sweet Sustainability

Syrup production process.
VA Northern Indiana finds sweet success in sustainable syrup.

VA Northern Indiana Health Care System (VANIHCS) historic Marion VA Medical Center sits on 105 acres of land and is one of the longest Veterans serving campuses in the nation.

Originally constructed as the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, the Marion VA has been improving Veteran health since 1889.

Among Marion’s 105 acres of land are over 50 maple trees and intrigued VANIHCS Nutrition and Food Service (N&FS) to harvest their own maple syrup. The idea originated with the N&FS gardeners Nicholas Jones and Aaron Robinson.

“Aaron and I used to have discussions about how to make the VA more sustainable and one of the main topics that we came up with was tapping the maple trees to make maple syrup,” said Jones.

With the support of executive leadership and the Green Environmental Management System (GEMS) program, N&FS commenced this project through sustainability funding and a generous donation from Charles Purcell with American Legion

The American Legion donation allowed the team to buy a 275-gallon holding tank and a 35-gallon collection tank.

“There is a short 3–6 week window of maple syrup collection. It must be freezing at night but above freezing and sunny during the day. It takes approximately 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup,” said Lindsay Bartrom, N&FS Chief.

Once the trees were tapped, they immediately started producing sap. A 3-gallon bag is attached to the tree and the sap is then collected.

The sap is then boiled down to pre-syrup, which takes several hours. At the later phases, a hydrometer must be used to ensure the proper sugar concentration. 

The pre-syrup is stored until the team has reached 30 gallons, and then it is cooked in a steam kettle. After 12 hours of cooking, it is filtered multiple times and sealed in 1-gallon jugs while it is hot to prevent spoilage. 

“So many of our staff members have voluntarily assisted in this process and making it a great success,” said Jones.

Rex Cunningham, a Veteran residing in the Marion Community Living Center, even joined Jones for a sap collection and taste tested the final product.

“It was great. It’s amazing we are using trees on our property. It took so much effort to get approval and Mr. Jones deserves all the credit, he puts so much time in, comes in on the weekends because the bags fill up fast”, said Cunningham.

VANIHCS goal in future years is to produce enough pure maple syrup to replace what is being purchased from the N&FS vendor and any additional maple syrup produced will be donated to Veterans food pantry or incorporated into inpatient meals. 

“We served homemade waffles and maple syrup as a special breakfast meal to debut the new syrup for inpatients and we received great feedback from our Veterans and staff”.

For 2023, VANIHCS has collected approximately 825 gallons of sap and has produced 17 gallons of maple syrup. For VA Northern Indiana Veterans, the project has been a sweet success.

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