Turning sap to syrup makes spring the sweetest season of all

Springtime in Michigan is marked by warming, sunshine-filled days but also those still-brisk nights that make us keep our coat and hat nearby. This push-pull of temperatures also gives us the season’s first sweet treat: maple syrup. For some, the nearly lost art of tapping trees, harvesting the watery sap, and boiling it down to make a thick syrup is the ultimate balm to late winter’s cabin fever.

Michigan ranks eighth nationally for maple syrup production. Vermont’s East Coast maple forests lead the pack, yielding 42% of the more than 3.1 million gallons produced annually in the U.S.
Maple syrup waiting for a new home.
In the Great Lakes state, this crop lures syrup makers outdoors as soon as daytime temperatures get high enough to make the sap start running in the maple trees. Producers range from backyard hobbyists making enough for home use to large-scale producers selling through a variety of outlets.

As the state’s first agricultural crop of the year, it’s celebrated with Michigan Maple Weekends at sugarbush sites throughout the state from March 20 through April 4. The event is sponsored by Michigan Maple Syrup Association. Thousands visit sugar operations each year to see how sap is gathered, boiled down to syrup, and bottled. COVID-19 guidelines are in place at participating locations. You can find information about Michigan Maple Weekends at michiganmaple.org/michigan-maple-weekend.

Each sugarbush has a story

Colby Tucker, 14,  from Hopkins in Allegan County, is in his third year of collecting and cooking sap. His dad, Craig, brought home a kit with supplies for three taps a few years ago. The first year’s collection yielded a half-gallon of syrup for the family. Last year, they made 4 gallons. This year, he hopes to more than double that by setting 83 taps, at home and another site.

Colby Tucker of Hopkins enjoys collecting sap and making syrup with his Dad, Craig. Colby collects sap during the week, then he and his father spend Saturday afternoons during March cooking it down.  “We cook the syrup slowly and start with a couple of full buckets and just keep adding to the boil until we get the cooker full,” Colby says. While it cooks — it takes 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup — the two play darts and have snacks.

They completed a new sugar shack just in time for the 2021 season. The 20-by-20-foot cement pad is larger than the new shack, leaving space for firewood, sap barrels, and other supplies. Colby is excited about the cupola with fold-down sides, which pulls the steam from the evaporator up and out of the building. He is learning to use the hydrometer to measure sugar content, learning to be more efficient with his time and resources, and learning to identify which trees to tap by marking them in the fall when they are still easy to identify.

Colby is running his syrup business as part of a Supervised Agricultural Experience (SAE) project as a member of Hopkins FFA. Each member is required to be involved in an ag-related project outside of the classroom. The syrup business, in addition to a sheep project, is the perfect niche for him on the family calf farm. Friends and neighbors buy syrup from Colby for personal use and gifts. The syrup has traveled as far as Kansas and California, Kazakhstan, Egypt, and South Korea, as gifts for local foreign exchange students.

A family affair

Farther east in Kent County, Ned Stoller, of Lowell, has been gathering sap to make syrup since he was a boy, hanging buckets from trees in his Indiana hometown. In 2004, Stoller and his wife, Heidi, along with their six children, began sugaring the 11-acre woods on their rented farm. Their goal is to produce 130 gallons of syrup to sell throughout the year, covering their annual farm rent with the income.

“Don’t ask us how much we make per hour,” Stoller says, jovially. “But we get to work together and have a good time doing it.”

Maple sugar candy is a value-added product, and the Stoller family has captured the art of the process. They save the first harvest, Grade A light golden syrup, for candy making. Molded in maple leaf shapes, the candy is a popular fall item at Robinette’s Apple Haus & Winery and Heidi’s Farmstand and Bakery.

Hobby turned business    

Sugar Bin Maple Syrup started as a hobby 20 years ago in an old grain bin on a Coopersville dairy farm. Eventually, more and more people wanted the product, and the hobby grew into a business owned by brothers-in-law Dave Ten Brink and Ted Costigan, along with Mark Raterink. “We are all so busy doing things around the farm, which is our day-to-day job,” Costigan says. “It’s nice to get out there early in the spring and do something different. It’s getting outside in February and getting out in the woods. It’s our project, and we are running with it.”

Sugar Bin owners built a larger building for on the farm to accommodate increased production. From left, Dave Ten Brink, Mark Raterink, and Ted Costigan.

In any given year, Sugar Bin has between 850 and 1,200 taps on trees in rented woods at four locations. The goal is to produce 350 gallons of syrup per year to market at the Coopersville farm, 18945 56th Ave., as well as at Coopersville Hardware, Groenink’s Hardware in Nunica, The Depot Restaurant in Grant, Village Baker in Spring Lake, and Hilltop Bakery in Bailey. Both bakeries also use syrup for confections.

In 2020, bulk sales, which accounted for a large percentage of Sugar Bin sales, took a hit due to the pandemic. “People were sticking around home more, and we started selling more in smaller pint and quart jars,” Costigan says. They adapted by rebottling the bulk product into smaller jars and were able to sell most of last year’s harvest. Rumors about jar and supply shortages for the 2021 syrup season didn’t impact the partners as they purchased high-demand items, such as bottles and caps, early.

Managing the trees

Technology is improving sap collection, which leads to better tree management. Trees with a larger circumference can safely handle two taps.

Costigan recommends tapping trees once during the year and leaving them alone. Sugar Bin alternates sides for tapping yearly and makes sure not to insert taps close to each other. Over-tapped trees will result in drilling into deadwood.
The next generation of Sugar Bin help learns sap collecting and storage techniques.
Colby is learning the correct angle to insert taps to get maximum sap and allow the tree to retain sufficient nutrients.

Sap can be collected in buckets or bags, which requires a lot of lifting, pouring, and dipping. Larger operations, like Stoller’s and Sugar Bin’s, are moving to vacuum pump systems. Stoller switched to the system this year, while Sugar Bin has used it for several years, hanging more than 8 miles of plastic tubing this winter to collect sap. The tubing is strung from tree to tree and brings sap to a central location. Vacuum pressure maintains a steady pull on the trees, creating a consistent and larger flow from fewer taps.

A tap normally heals or seals by the end of the season, but occasionally one fails to close. An open wound on a tree is a potential entrance for disease-causing bacteria or insects. Fewer taps mean fewer entry opportunities.

Costigan says Sugar Bin is careful to avoid damaging trees by scarring or breaking branches any time they are in the woods.

“There is always a fear of invasive species or woodlots dying out, but so far it hasn’t been a problem in Ottawa County,” he says. “We are careful to not introduce bacteria by replacing drop lines every three years and making sure our tubing lines are cleaned each year. There really is a lot to managing a woods.”

Some soils are more suitable for sustaining maple forests than others. Ottawa County has plentiful areas that promote good maple woods, much like the soils that sustain some of the state’s most productive orchards.

A good sap season depends on the previous growing season. Drought, high heat, and stress all impact the next season’s sugar content. Stressors reduce the reserves a tree can store, which impacts syrup quality. A good growing season generally results in a good sap season the following spring.

Everyone gets involved

Running the sugar operation is good for kids, Stoller says, and his six children are all part of the family business.

Lowell Stoller drills a tap into a maple tree for sap collection.“Whether it’s plumbing with all the pipelines through the woods, building equipment like our stainless-steel hoods for steam evaporation out of the shack, repairs, adding onto the building, or mixing and pouring concrete floors to meet Grade A MDARD (Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development) regulations, they can learn so much,” he says.

His 5-year-old nephew taps two trees at his home and brings his sap when they are cooking, scooping his sap into the cooker with a tin cup.

“Working in nature, you learn to recognize the disappointment of a bad year when you worked really hard and didn’t get as much as you hoped, and then the joys of a good year when you worked just as hard and got a lot more than expected. There are lots of good life lessons out there, and plain old hard work, like having to get six cords of wood ready the summer before the next season. At some point, you just have to dig in and get it done.”

“We are first generation in the syrup business, so it is kind of cool to watch the whole process,” Costigan says. “We’ve all got kids; it’s nice to see them come outside and get involved. We sit and dream about where it’s going to go 10 or 20 years from now. We plant a tree now, and our grandkids could be tapping that down the road.”

Making syrup is more than a business. It’s a culture, it’s a custom, it’s a social event. Costigan says their sugar shack is always open, and a lot of people stop by.

“Sometimes, it feels more like social time than work; we are always cooking some sort of food, and people bring food over. It’s a big community thing.”

More than money

Colby likes the fact that the project is a two-month burst of activity then is over for the year, leaving him time to play soccer and work with his 4H projects. The extra money he makes from the syrup is nice, but his biggest goal is just to have fun and enjoy the outdoors.

Most of the income produced through Sugar Bin goes back into growing the business for now. Costigan says they have made a little fun money and bought four-wheelers with tracks to move sap out of the woods, use on the farm, and for recreation.

“Just like any ag enterprise, the income touches a lot of other area businesses, like the hardware stores where we buy supplies, the bakeries and restaurants that use our syrup in their business, the shipping, bottling, and all the other things that go into making syrup," Costigan says.

The syrup makers enjoy the woods. Almost yearly, the Stoller family experiences a thunderstorm while it’s snowing.

“You’re out close to God’s creation, and you just see and hear curious things that add spice to life,” Stoller says. “There’s nothing like a crystal-clear moonlit night in the woods on a cold night. I mean, who gets to take a night walk in the woods on their way to work? It doesn’t get much better than that.”
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