Food Service & Agriculture and Manufacturing

Weather makes syrup production sticky

Bacteria set in under warmer temperatures, which forces harvesting season to end early.

March 10, 2017
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Syrup
An unseasonably warm late winter could shorten the maple syrup production season, which normally lasts four to six weeks. Courtesy Thinkstock.com

Maple syrup producers are doing some hand wringing this month, as warmer-than-normal temperatures threaten production.

Steve Henson, who owns Doodle’s Sugarbush in Blanchard and is a member of the Commercial Maple Syrup Producers of Michigan board of directors, said the end of March normally is the best time for maple syrup runs. However, if temperatures stay at 60 degrees or warmer for too many days, the season will end early, and this year’s production likely will be down across the state.

“When we get early warm weather like we’ve gotten this year, we start tapping early, and then what happens is, if you are on gravity or buckets, at 60 degrees the sap starts slowing or stops running and that allows bacteria to set in, and the holes we’ve made for the taps will heal over,” Henson explained.

He said it isn’t as simple as just drilling new holes either, because trees can only sustain so many tap holes.

Henson said warmer weather also impacts the sugar content in the sap. He said less sugar content means it takes more gallons of maple sap to make a gallon of maple syrup, and that can lead to a stronger maple syrup taste in the final product that isn’t as pleasant to some people’s palate.

According to the Michigan Maple Syrup Association, the average amount of sap it takes to make one gallon of syrup in Michigan is about 40 gallons, but Henson said if the sugar content in the sap is as low as 1 percent — compared to its average of 2.5 percent — it takes approximately 86 gallons to make a gallon of syrup.

Henson said in 2012, warmer than average temperatures caused his company’s production to decrease dramatically.

“We usually make about 1,000 gallons per year,” he said. “Back in 2012, the season was only a couple of weeks long, and the hot weather set in and shut it down. It was one of the worst seasons we’ve had. The trees weren’t able to produce the sap.”

He said a normal maple sap harvest season is four to six weeks long, but in 2012, the season lasted only two weeks.

“We didn’t even get a third of the crop,” he said. “If it returns to the warmer weather now and stays there, in a week’s time, we’d be about done.”

Henson said farms with red and silver maple trees already have seen their season end, because the trees already are budding.

Overall, Michigan is fifth in the nation for maple syrup production. The state is responsible for around 90,000 gallons of maple syrup per year, according to the Michigan Maple Syrup Association.

Michigan isn’t the only state impacted by warmer temperatures this year.

Henson said it has been warmer through the whole maple region.

If warmer temperatures continue during late winter and early spring, maple syrup producers will have to start adjusting their harvesting timelines.

“Sugar makers are going to have to tap earlier in the season, the end of December or first part of January, and make use of that early run more than at the end of March,” Henson said.

Henson said even if U.S. production falls short this year, it likely wouldn’t impact consumer prices, because 80 percent of the world’s maple syrup comes from Quebec.

Henson did say consumers could help Michigan’s maple syrup farms, however.

“Michiganders can buy local Michigan-made syrup,” he said. “Michigan makes good products, and it benefits everyone if they buy Michigan maple syrup.

“When you buy from Michigan as a local person, more of that money gets spent here than buying it out of the country or the state.”

Michigan has an estimated 500 commercial maple syrup producers in Michigan with some 2,000 additional hobby or home-use producers.

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