B and E's Trees
B and E’s Trees, Wisconsin Maple Farm Focused on Value-Adding Efforts
There is one passion that stayed with Bree Breckel, co-owner of B and E’s Trees, throughout her entire life: her love of the forest. “Being in the woods is my happy place,” Bree explained. Ingrained in her by farming parents, one of whom came from generations of farmers, she always felt a connection to the Wisconsin land for which she was raised. During her college years and beyond, Bree worked in this industry at a food co-op in Lacrosse. This position provided her a chance to connect with local farms and view how these workers approached their farming.
While working for the co-op, Bree met her husband, Eric, who co-owns B and E’s trees with her. Bree noted, “We both had this draw to farm families and wanting to get back to the land.” This mutual interest led to the inspiration to begin their own farm together and extensive research about which agricultural avenue they wanted to take. Their search concluded after they came across a forested plot of land with maple trees mature enough for tapping, which correlated well with Bree’s woodland passion.
Getting started as a business was not a simple process, but Bree mentioned that the Farm Service Agency (FSA) played an imperative role in their early beginnings. A challenge the couple faced was how to fund all the start-up costs that went into a tree tapping business. Although they were the first maple operation the FSA worked with, the agency saw potential in their business and granted them a loan. “They took a chance on us, and that made all the difference getting started,” Bree emphasized.
This led to the origins of B and E’s Trees, a maple tree farm in Viroqua, Wisconsin focused on producing maple syrup products. The tapping and cooking of the syrup occur on the farm; the value-adding, bottling and sales are done at the Food Enterprise Center, an abandoned factory that has been remodeled to house over twenty local food and wellness businesses. This small operation works to harvest and expand the types of syrup products available to consumers while operating fully off-the-grid.
The Process to Success
The first year Bree and Eric began tree tapping was in 2012. With an open mind and a determination to begin their first tapping season strong, they were excited to begin this process in the late winter. Much to their disappointment, the temperatures rose to nearly seventy degrees in a short, one-week span causing a typical two-month tapping season to get cut short to nine days. The tapping process requires cold weather, and the seventy degree weather was preventing that process.
Bree and Eric did not let this poor season defeat their spirits moving forward. They continued to look for learning opportunities to expand and grow not only in their production, but also in their overall company. “We knew right away we needed to do value adding and to do more than just the farming to build the business side of it,” Bree stated.
After attending the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair, they were introduced to the owners of Central Waters Brewing Company. This company is described by Bree as one of the “pioneers in the barrel aged beer program,” and they worked on a plan to sustainably distribute their used maple barrels to the brewery. This interaction jump-started their work with maple soaked bourbon barrels that continues within their operations today.
The steps they took early on to expand their business still shine through to their work today. Following their plan to expand the maple market, B and E’s Trees produces and sells various products outside of pancake syrup. In addition to these items, the company also works with products in the cooking, cocktail, and athletic sectors to appeal to a wide range of customers.
Making these products is a year-long process beginning in January with testing the tapping system and pump equipment. Syrup season can span from February to April, which includes the tapping, collection, and cooking of the syrup. Sap is harvested and cooked into syrup on the farm, sometimes late into the night. After the season, the finished syrup is brought to their commercial kitchen where it is barrel aged for two full years, bottled, and distributed. When they are not in the sugar house or kitchen, the team is on the road, sampling and promoting their products to stores and directly to customers.
Once it reaches the cooler months in the fall and winter, much of the focus gets switched to stocking and selling the products. B and E’s Trees has shelf space at independent retailers, such as gift shops and grocery stores, as well as an online shop for customers to browse. October through December tend to be the busiest with the holiday season fast approaching.
In the maple industry, Bree indicated the number of sales does not drive businesses to compete with one another. Different maple businesses all contribute new ideas to the maple market, and it takes each of them to create the products customers love. There is a supportive nature shared between maple farmers in the area, which proves that more minds are better than one.
Another way B and E’s Trees fosters a sense of community is through the planning of on-site events. In March, the business hosts a syrup season event to connect with local customers and allow them to visit the farm. “People get such a strong experience when they meet you in person,” Bree observed. Some past events they implemented during this time include a 5K through the maple forest and an open house. Rampfest, another on-site event in April, celebrates the incoming spring season while also meeting with those in the community.
The team found increasing success early on with events and wanted to continue funding this element of their business. Therefore, they looked into applying for the Value Added Producer Grant (VAPG) in 2020 to aid in this process. Bree mentioned she first looked into the grant five years prior, but due to their busy start-up endeavors, they put that idea on hold.
When it came time to revisit the grant, Bree hired a firm to help interpret the grant and guide them through the process. This allowed B and E’s Trees to take advantage of this opportunity without losing sight of their daily operations.
Within weeks of submitting the grant application, the farm faced another problem. The world had shut down from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which impacted one of the main reasons they applied for the grant: the events. They were used to making an income from traveling to weekly events, so this new normal halted much of their profit-building activities.
Although the business incurred many losses from this shut down, the $250,000 they were granted provided them a starting point for the future to allocate more funds to other areas of their business. As the focus of their grant is “expanding the bourbon barrel maple syrup market,” the farm is able to put the money toward activities such as updating their website and designing print materials to promote their events or sales.
Bree expressed that the VAPG has been somewhat flexible during these challenging times. The company has been granted two budget adjustments, one of which they have already utilized. Having this leeway to allocate their money to areas that will benefit them long-term is something Bree has appreciated.
The VAPG has offered this company the opportunity to chase the goals they created from the beginning. “We were able to put together a program and a project that we see a lot of value in not just for ourselves, but for the world of maple,” Bree acknowledged. Expanding the market and enhancing their business are two goals this farm has kept their eyes on and hope to continue funding.
While looking toward their future, Bree hopes to add a sales manager position to their farm. As a small business with a limited number of employees, a new employee will help the farm grow and uphold their passion for the maple industry.