So it was only natural that members of Wagoner’s family – wife Kelly, 11-year-old daughter Elizabeth and 9-year-old son Wyatt – comprise the workforce at T&K Farms.
The Wagoners offer several items at the Trigg County Farmer’s Market, but the product Tim is most proud of is one some people might not expect to find in Kentucky – maple syrup.
Wagoner, who flies for Air Evac and flew for 10 years as an Army scout pilot, worked for a time in Effingham, Ill., and made some friends there who got him interested in making his own syrup.
“All those guys said, ‘You’re too far south; you don’t have any good maple trees,’” Wagoner said.
He’s in his second year of proving the naysayers wrong.
“I got to reading and found that it doesn’t matter what kind of maple tree it is; if it’s a maple, you can get sap from it,” Wagoner said. “They all have a different sugar content.”
Wagoner has plenty of hard suger, red and silver maples on his 120-acre property, totaling 600 trees eligible to be tapped and about another 600 that are still too small.
“We bought this place three years ago, and we were very fortunate to get it,” Wagoner said. “The good Lord allowed us to get it.”
Wagoner, 40, had a family connection to the property before he purchased it, but he didn’t know it at the time. While giving his father a tour of the land, he learned that the two of them traveled from their home in Hopkinsville to the same tract when he was six years old to fish on Little River. Wagoner caught his first fish there.
The Jeremiah and Stacy Kline family also assists the Wagoners.
“We became friends through [Crossroads] church; I said something about doing maple syrup and they just started helping us,” Wagoner said. “All of our kids get involved, and it allows us to have fun together.”
In addition to enjoyment and fellowship, Wagoner said education is another important reason he gets his family involved in the process.
“I’m doing this because I love doing it, but also because I want my kids to know where stuff comes from and to appreciate this land that God gave us,” Wagoner said. “I want us to be a good steward of this land. This is just part of it.”
Wagoner put out 63 taps last year, starting the operation on a small scale. This winter, he increased the tap count to 422.
“I’ve got a lot more trees I could tap, but I just can’t tap all of them,” Wagoner said. “I’m at the most I could do right now and still have another job.”
This winter has been a successful one for harvesting sap at T&K. Thursday night alone, the Wagoners brought in 340 gallons.
“It was flowing,” Wagoner said. “I’ve got several trees that I’ve got five-gallon buckets on, and they were overflowing. Some of those were in a six-hour period. It still baffles me that so much water can go through these trees and not rot the wood out.”
Wagoner said it takes anywhere from 40 to 60 gallons of sap to generate one gallon of syrup. He begins collecting sap between Christmas and the first week of January. He drills from one to two inches into trees with a diameter of at least 10 inches.
“The bigger the tree, the more you can tap it, up to three taps,” Wagoner said.
Wagoner uses three methods of collecting sap – buckets, sacks and lines. Using the line system, Wagoner can connect taps on multiple trees and feed the sap from all of them into one tank.
“When it’s really flowing, a tree can produce anywhere from one gallon to over five gallons in a 12-to-24-hour period,” Wagoner said. “[Thursday night] was wonderful because it got below freezing, and it’s supposed to get well above 40 degrees today [Friday]. That makes the sap flow. It won’t flow until you have that kind of temperature swing.”
The sap is then taken by all-terrain vehicle out of the bottoms and up to Wagoner’s shed, where it’s fed through an ultraviolet light to kill bacteria.
“The bacteria gets killed when you cook it, but if you kill it before that, it makes the syrup a little lighter in color,” Wagoner said.
The sap is then stored in a large milk tank until it’s ready to be cooked, which involves moving to another tank and gravity-feeding into an evaporator. It then flows through a series of valves and pans, producing a gallon of syrup in an hour or a little longer.
“It takes longer if you don’t keep the fire hot,” Wagoner said.
After running through a filter, the syrup is ready to be bottled. This year, T&K Farms has custom-made bottles that highlight Kentucky’s horse history and give information on the Wagoner family and their goal to make “true Kentucky maple syrup.”
Wagoner said a friend in central Kentucky who makes syrup full-time hoped to produce over 100 gallons of syrup this season. Wagoner’s goal is to eventually become the state’s leading producer of maple syrup.
“My goal this year is 65 gallons,” Wagoner said. “And that’s just part-time. You’re not going to get rich doing it; it’s a labor of fun and a labor of love.”
It’s obvious that Wagoner enjoys what may have started as a hobby and is quickly progressing toward a more demanding endeavor.
“There’s nothing more satisfying than taking that pure liquid, running it through that evaporator, watching it turn that amber color and then putting a biscuit in it,” Wagoner said. “Put it on French toast, pancakes; the best thing is vanilla ice cream. It makes everything better.”
T&K Farms also produces sorghum, apple cider, apple butter, james and jellies, vegetables, eggs and hay, and Wagoner said he plans to plant rows of berries and operate a “you-pick” farm.
For more information or to place an order, visit www.tk-farms.com or call the Wagoners at 522-5729 or 210-9555.