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Sappy schoolwork
Ninth-grader Rob Schroeder spoons through maple syrup, which has to settle and then go through a filtration process. (Times photo: Marissa Weiher)
ALBANY - The smell of sugar and burning wood engulfs Albany Schools, filling its hallways while Jamie Rupp's FFA students cook sap they've collected from maple trees throughout the community into syrup.

The students get to assist with numerous phases of the production process, such as collecting the sap, chopping wood, cooking and bottling. Eighth-grader Whitney Clason said learning to do different parts of the production process is the best part. This is Clason's second year involved with the syrup-making process.

"It's really fun," Clason said. "I know a lot of other kids enjoy doing it too."

Ninth-grader Rob Schroeder has been in FFA for three years and likes seeing the progress from the beginning of the season, when they can barely get sap to flow from the taps, to now, when they're expecting to make close to 100 gallons of syrup - 21 gallons more than last year.

Schroeder said the FFA had 300 taps in trees around the community and has already finished collecting sap for the season. Now, all they have to do is cook the sap they have left. It takes 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup.

Once the syrup is cooked and has settled for a few days, it has to go through a time-consuming filtration process, which takes about an hour from start to finish. Next year, the group is hoping to have a filtration press, which will cut the time down to about 30 seconds, Schroeder said.

This is the Albany FFA's fifth year making syrup. Rupp said the project started after his neighbor Paul Barrett of Monroe, who also makes syrup, inspired him.

At the end of the process every year, the FFA sells the finished product at the school.

Schroeder's favorite part of the syrup production process is cooking, because participants mostly get to sit and stoke the fire about every 10 minutes. The FFA was able to purchase a new cooker this year, which produced too much steam in the shed and required the group to make adjustments. Schroeder said they had to modify the previously flat roof so it would have a chimney to vent out some of the steam.

This year, the ninth-grader got to work an overnight shift, which is typically worked by alumni to keep up production when students are overwhelmed with sap.

"The first eight hours are fun," Schroeder said. "The last four hours are not fun."

But it wasn't too bad after all, he added, since Rupp bought breakfast in the morning.

To help out while the students are in class, Rupp has several retired members of the community volunteer their time. John Hlabachek and Glenn Holtsappel, both of Albany, kept an eye on the fire March 21. Both have been helping for about three years.

Hlabachek volunteers during the week from about 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Both Hlabachek and Holtsappel said their favorite part of volunteering is getting to help the students. They like that the project teaches students to develop a work ethic.

"It gives them the chance to learn something outside a textbook," Holtsappel said.