Environment & Science
12:24 pm
Fri May 31, 2013

A rebound for Michigan's maple syrup producers

It has been a good year for maple syrup in Michigan. Farms produced twice the amount of syrup as they did last year, thanks to prime weather conditions that extended the tree-tapping season into April.

Syrup production ended in the Lower Peninsula in early April, and the Upper Peninsula continued production until the end of April. The official numbers of gallons produced will be released in early June. 

“It was a good year for maple syrup producers because of this extended winter,” said Jan Currey from Currey Farms Pure Maple Syrup in Charlevoix, Michigan. “When spring comes slowly, that’s good for maple syrup makers. When we go from winter to one week of spring and right into summer, that’s not good.”

Playing the weather game

The prime conditions for syrup seem relatively simple: warm, above-freezing temperatures without major temperature variations during the day and below freezing temperatures at night.

The best-case scenario, according to Stephanie Thorne from Trail's End Maple Syrup in Vermontville, Mich., is 29 degrees at night and 40 degrees during the day. The rapid rise in temperature makes the sap run the best, with the highest sugar content.

You've been through the long winter, and you get that first syrup in the spring ... it's like a spring elixir.

But the amount of maple syrup produced is a guessing game every year.

"I’ll tell you how much syrup we are going to make in those next couple of weeks at the end of those couple weeks," Currey said.

Weather conditions control production completely, and it isn’t always in syrup’s favor. Last year, Michigan’s production was down 49 percent from an average year, and producers made less than a quarter of the amount of syrup that they normally do. The normally 3-4 week long syrup season was shortened to about 9 days for most producers.

“Last year was very, very short and not very good at all,” said Larry Haigh, president of the Michigan Maple Syrup Association. “That warm weather in January and February really hurt us, and the buds came early. This year we had a lot of cold weather. We had snow into April, so it’s been a good year for syrup.”

Syrup season is a sure sign that spring is coming to the northeastern United States, the only part of the nation where syrup is produced. Syrup season begins when trees come out of winter dormancy and prepare to bud.

"I always like the very first syrup we make," Haigh said. "You’ve been through the long winter, and you get that first syrup in the spring ... it’s like a spring elixir."

Syrup farmers tap the tree by drilling a hole into the maple tree, collect the sap, and boil it until the correct amount of sugar has concentrated into syrup. Techniques and timing of this process differ from farm to farm. Thorne describes her process:

It takes 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup. Different tree and soil types throughout the state influence the taste of the syrup, and every year there are variations in the flavor. Some years the syrup is sweeter and other years there is a stronger maple flavor.

It's not just about the syrup.

Syrup farmers don’t just stop at syrup, however. Granulated sugar, molded candy, hand-stirred candy, maple cream, and maple cotton candy are some of the more common syrup products that farmers make.

Carla Rumsey is the library director in Vermontville, Michigan, home to the Maple Syrup Festival. She's seen maple syrup in some odd, creative concoctions. She helped administer a cooking competition for the Maple Syrup Festival this year.

“There is a meatloaf that has maple syrup in the meatloaf and it has a maple bourbon glaze. Who would have thought you put syrup in a meatloaf? When I started organizing, I thought I’d get more cookies, pies, and cakes because that’s what I think of when I think maple syrup. But we have salmon, we have baked beans, we have sweet potato pasta with syrup in it, maple cream pie, maple pecan pie ... so a good variety.”

A state tradition

Tapping for maple syrup used to be done by farmers in the winter as a way to stay busy before farming season began. Now Michigan has 35 major producers throughout the state, but syrup producers can be backyard hobbyists too. Michigan ranks 5th-7th in production nationwide, depending on the year. Only 12 states produce syrup.

“In Michigan, we are just trying to educate people that our syrup is also natural, pure and delicious and we take great pride in making it,” Currey said. “What is unique is what each state chooses to highlight. It’s really the most nutritious sweetener. It’s kind of like, if you have maple trees, you might as well make maple syrup!”

- Rebecca Guerriero, Michigan Radio Newsroom