My family has been producing maple syrup for six generations. Some of my earliest memories are watching Great Grandpa Battel boil sap late into the night and helping the rest of my family collect buckets and dump them into great big sap tanks that were above my head at the time. Now I’m 15 years old and I’m proud to be carrying on my family’s tradition, with my own operation called County Line Kids Pure Maple Syrup of 217 maple taps that a friend and I run alongside my family’s business Battel’s Sugar Bush. I want to share with you a glimpse of what it’s like to be a Battel in the spring. We’ll explore the science behind maple syrup production, modern maple syrup tools, and the potential for maple syrup in Pure Michigan.
Syrup production by maple trees requires a very specific climate that only occurs in a small part of the world. Our beautiful Michigan just happens to be smack-dab in the middle of that region. We enjoy the perfect temperatures for a 5- to 7-week period, beginning around late February and lasting as late as early April. As soon as temperatures reach above freezing during the day, but still below 32 degrees F at night, maple trees begin to wake up from dormancy. Like all trees, maples produce sap. Sap is responsible for transporting sugary energy within the tree through xylem and phloem, which are like a tree’s veins and arteries. Warm temperatures in the day pull sap through xylem and up into the tree’s canopy to begin producing leaves for the coming spring. As soon as temperatures cool down at night, sap is pushed through phloem deep into the root system to keep from freezing.
My family has been taking advantage of this process for six generations. As the tree’s energy source sap is dense in sugar, especially in hard maple trees like the sugar maple. Spring is the perfect time for sugarmakers like my family to begin collecting maple sap. Spiles are a tool sugarmakers use to collect sap; they’re tapped into the tree within a 2-inch long by 5/16th inch diameter hole. This spile acts a bit like a faucet that allows sap to flow out of the tree. Of course, sugarmakers value the health of our trees as our livelihood depends on them. By following university guidelines on the size and number of spiles we put in our trees, we ensure that we’re only collecting about 10% of the total sap a tree will produce in a season and that there’s plenty left over for the tree to continue growing at a healthy rate.
Once we have sap flowing, we collect it through buckets, bags, vacuum-pump or gravity-flow tubing. If you tasted the sap you would realize of course, it is not the finished product you pour on your pancakes. It takes on average 40 gallons of the watery sap to make one gallon of finished maple syrup. My family uses a reverse osmosis machine, RO for short, which pushes sap through a semi-porous membrane filter system that separates about half the water from the sap. We then boil the condensed sap on an evaporator pan to allow the remaining water to evaporate. My family’s evaporator pan uses wood fire to heat sap to 219 degrees F, at which point it becomes maple syrup. My grandpa has become expert over the years at checking our syrup for finish by watching how it aprons off a dipper, while we also use a hydrometer to double check the sugar content.
Once the sugar shack is filled with steam and the sweet smell of finished maple syrup, it’s drawn off the evaporator pan and moved to the canning room. There, we heat our syrup to 200 degrees F and push it through a filter press. After being filtered, it is poured into our beautiful glass or plastic containers and ready to sell.
It’s no surprise to anyone that Michigan’s vast and beautiful natural resources are closely tied to our economy, but it may surprise you to learn that maple trees hold our biggest untapped secret. Michigan sugarmakers only tap between 5 and 15 percent of the available sugar maple trees. Right now, Michigan makes 110,000 gallons of syrup a year while Vermont makes nearly 2 million gallons. Vermont makes 18 times the syrup. But here’s the thing: Michigan has two times the trees. Michigan produces $5.25 million worth of maple syrup a year. If we grow our maple syrup industry it could be bigger than the cherry industry and almost as big as the dry bean and blueberry industries.
Here’s what you can do about that: Tap your trees! Maple syrup making is relatively inexpensive compared to other industries, and the season is short. All a backyard producer needs are a food-safe, environmentally-safe way to tap and collect from maple trees, evaporate water from maple sap and store finished syrup in food-safe containers. Similar to the Cottage Food Law, maple syrup production is exempt from some of the requirements of Michigan Food Law, so by following a few simple guidelines your product can be sold for profit. We all know that money doesn’t grow on trees, but it does grow in maple trees!
I hope you now have a better understanding of what goes on inside a maple tree that makes its delicious sweetener possible, what it takes to make maple syrup, and what maple syrup means to our Michigan economy. If you’re interested in finding out more about how to make maple syrup on your own, please visit: https://battelsyrup.weebly.com/learn under “How to make maple syrup in your own backyard.” Or visit us during our annual open house March 17, 2018, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., at Battel’s Sugar Bush in Cass City, Michigan
You can also visit Addy at her face book page “County Line Kids Syrup.”
Addy Battel, YCC member – Cass City