Stump your friends by asking them to identify Michigan’s first harvest of the year. Here are the clues:
- The harvest must be completed before the last frost.
- Before the harvest can be sold, most of it must be discarded.
- This product comes from an inedible plant and was never alive.
If your friends waffle on their answer, give them a point for trying because the crop, maple syrup, is a favorite waffle topper. It’s also poured onto pancakes, cooked in barbecue, baked with beans, swirled into cotton candy, root beer and ice cream, baked into pastries, toasted onto nuts, spread on toast and molded into maple leaf-shaped candies. Michigan is one of the top 10 maple syrup producing states. On the last weekend in April, shortly after the sap stops running, the central Lower Peninsula town of Vermontville (pop. 763), hosts the state’s “original maple syrup festival.” (The 79th annual event will be held April 26-28, 2019.) Vermontville was established in 1837, the year Michigan became a state. Sugar maples in the area reminded town founder, the Reverend Sylvester Cochrane, of his home state of Vermont—which is the nation’s number one maple syrup producer. About 90 miles northeast of Vermontville, on the same weekend, Shepherd hosts its annual maple syrup festival. When the village began with a one-day celebration in 1966, attractions included skydivers, a pony pull and a record hop. Today, both communities celebrate with parades, pageants and piles of pancakes.
The Michigan Maple Syrup Association promotes three additional maple syrup weekends in March and early April. They open in sequence from the southern part of the Mitten north to the Upper Peninsula, reflecting the retreat of frosty nights. (Check michiganmapleweekend.com for details.) Maple syrup is made from sap, which is largely water containing sugar. Warming temperatures draw the sap up the trees, and farmers tap some through spiles (spouts) placed in them. Water is then separated from the sap, leaving the amber syrup. Early syrup is lighter in color; dark syrup comes later and is prized for barbecuing. Just as steel drum bands have replaced record hops at the syrup festivals, technology is modernizing the sap gathering. Although you will still see buckets hanging on trees in the sugar bush, you’ll also find bucketless systems with spiles of plastic, rather than galvanized steel, connected to tubing. Sap is then pumped to a station. There, most water is removed through reverse osmosis.
This saves a lot of tramping through cold and mud, and a lot of firewood and boiling. However, new technology brings new challenges. One is the squirrel patrol to find and repair holes gnawed in the sap line. Sugarmakers report thousands of dollars lost to squirrels who chew tubing and other apparatus. Theories are that they crave sugar, moisture or are gnawing just to keep their teeth sharp and prevent overgrowth.
SUGAR BUSH MATH
- Michigan’s 500 maple syrup producers and 2,000 hobbyists make about 90,000 gallons a year.
- A maple tree should be about 40 years old and have a diameter of 10 inches before it is tapped.
- About one percent of Michigan’s maple trees get tapped. The holes heal after the spiles are removed.
- One gallon of syrup is the result of cooking down 38-50 gallons of sap. Each tap-hole yields about 10 gallons of sap.
- Syrup is 66 percent sugar. Sap is about 2.5 percent.
- Sugar content is measured in brix, the same scale used for wine, fruit juices, honey and carbonated beverages.
- Although sugaring season lasts six to 10 weeks, the heavy sap run may be just 10 to 20 days.
- The ideal weather is sunny, 38- to 40-degree days and 28 degrees at night. A rapid rise from 25 degrees to 45 degrees really makes the sap flow. But when maple trees start budding, sap starts to turn bitter and the harvest is over.
This article originally appeared in the 2018 fall/winter issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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