Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Sour year for Michigan maple syrupers

By MEGAN DURISIN
Capital News Service

LANSING – In 2009, Michigan produced the most maple syrup in more than 60 years, but this spring farmers are tapping out sooner than they had hoped.

“No two maple seasons are alike,” said Russell Kidd, a Michigan State University Extension forest educator based in Roscommon. “This year was a poor year because it got warm in the middle of the season.”

Kidd said sap production requires below-freezing temperatures at night and above-freezing temperatures during the day.

“Last year we produced 115,000 gallons of syrup, which was tremendous,” Kidd said, adding that it was the most since 1947. “Normally we average 60,000 to 70,000 gallons. A good year is about 80,000.”

Larry Haigh of Bellevue, president of the Michigan Maple Syrup Association, said the state ranked fifth in the nation last year for production.

The association has about 200 members, many of them family-run businesses.

“We started making maple syrup with my folks in 1958 when I was a freshman in high school,” Haigh said. “We bought our own woods 30 years ago. We’ve been around it all our lives.”

Haigh said Haigh’s Maple Syrup and Supplies made 250 gallons in 2008. So far this spring, his production has been 165 gallons, which is about half of what he can sell.

Michigan has two major maple syrup festivals every year in Sheperd, about 25 miles south of Clare, and Vermontville, 30 miles west of Lansing.

“For both of those communities, it’s an important event,” said Ken Nye, commodity specialist for the Michigan Farm Bureau. “They use it to promote the tourism of the town.”

Eugene Fisher, president of the Vermontville Maple Syrup Corporation Festival, said this is the festival’s 70th year and attracts an average of 35,000 people each year.

“It’s the granddaddy of the maple syrup festivals in Michigan,” Fisher said.

The festival, which runs April 23-25, brings tourists from other states, Fisher said. It will include fireworks, an arts and crafts show, a Little Miss Maple Syrup Princess contest, syruping demonstrations at Maple Manor and lots of food, especially pancakes and maple syrup.

Despite the large amount of syrup last year, a section in the middle of the Lower Peninsula didn’t fare well, and it included Haigh’s farm in Bellevue. Meanwhile, production was the best on the lakeshore and in the Upper Peninsula.

Maple syrup is in high demand, Haigh said, and the price doesn’t often go down. His farm has raised its prices this year.

Haigh said last year’s average price for a gallon was $45 to $58 and he expects the average for 2010 to be about $50 a gallon.

He said a syruper in Mason is charging $60 a gallon.

Paul Bastian of Bastian Maple Hill Farm in Dorr, about 20 miles south of Grand Rapids, has been in the business since the early 1990s. This is the second consecutive bad year for syrupers in Southwest Michigan.

“You just learn to live with it,” Bastian said. “That’s a part of farming.”

Bastian said maple syrup is a weather-dependent crop and relies on how much sugar is in the sap.

“I always hope for 100 gallons, but I never quite make it,” said Bastian.

Bastian estimated that he taps 300 to 400 trees each year.

“I just like working in the woods,” Bastian said.

Haigh expressed similar reasons for continuing the business.

“It’s just in our blood, we’ve done it for so long,” Haigh said. “We use a lot of maple syrup products in our household.”

Kidd said that it typically takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.

“When you tap a tree, it looks like water, it runs like water. It’s only about 2 percent sweetness,” Kidd said. “It’s like drinking bottled water that’s sweetened with something.

Kidd also said that maple syrup is unique to the United States and Canada. Only about 16 states and provinces produce it, stretching between Minnesota and New England.

“It’s a very North American product,” Kidd said.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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