Students ‘Tap’ Into Industry

Back to school means back to hands-on learning in agriculture classrooms across the state. The rural Owen-Withee School District in Clark County is going on five years as a maple syrup producer.

Travis Engel is the ag tech teacher at Owen-Withee. He’s also a third-generation maple syrup producer, knowledge he brought with him into the classroom. Today his students run a 30-acre maple syrup operation in the school forest. While production won’t begin until spring, maintenance is ongoing.

The school forest is host to a state-of-the-art sap collection system. Vacuum tubes strategically run through the forest like a spider web. They ensure every drop of sap makes it to a storage tank to be sold to a processor. The system also has a digital component, allowing student to track data from the classroom 10 miles away. It also shows exactly where problems arise — a hole or disconnected line, for example — so they can walk straight to the issue and fix it.

Engel says the operation is open for tours. He notes hundreds of producers have come out. The 2022 Farm Technology Days also asked them to set up in Innovation Square. Aside from the industry, the students also enjoy the work. Engel says sign-ups to go out to the forest fill up fast.

The sap is sold to two producers — one pays in cash to help pay for equipment; the other pays them back in the finished syrup. Students market and sell the product to local businesses and the school lunch program.