How sweet it is: Michigan one day could be world's leading producer of maple syrup

One of Dave Parsons's fondest memories from childhood is tramping through the northern Michigan woods each winter on snowshoes with his family, not for leisure, but to collect sap for precious maple syrup.

Parsons, with his wife Terri, now runs the same farm his father, grandfather and great-grandfather did before him, but the days of maple syruping by hand on snowshoes have evolved into more modern methods. In the process, Parsons Centennial Farm near Charlevoix -- on the shores of Harwood Lake -- has become the producer of Harwood Heritage Gold maple syrup, which they process and bottle for retail and wholesale customers across the state and beyond.

"The heritage in the name is that we've been doing this for four generations now," Parsons says. "My great-grandfather, my grandfather and my dad did it for their own use and as a sugar source, especially during World War II." In Parsons' father's time, they first began to sell some extra syrup for profit, and now maple syrup is the farm's main commodity. The old dairy barn's been renovated into a processing center, and the Parsons tap a little more than 2,000 trees each winter, producing 620 gallons of syrup last year, but as much as 1,000 gallons on a good year.

Craig Waldron knows what that kind of history is like, as his father grew up tapping maples for syrup near the family farm in Burt Lake, and started Far Hills Maple Syrup there in 1975, putting his family to work in the sugar house.

"He had grown up on a farm and wanted to make sure his kids knew how to work, more than just mowing the lawn at the lake house," Waldron says. "There were a lot of maples and a lot of hills. And his main business was construction, which at the time you didn't do in the winter, so maple syrup was a good fit."

Maple tapping can only be done in a small window of time each year, as the sap begins to run depending on the weather in February, March and April. The prime season in Northwest Michigan usually is the last two weeks of March, and at the most lasts three to five weeks.

To get the most of the sweet sap in such a short time, Parsons and Waldron are among the Michigan producers who have upgraded to the latest maple syruping technology. Elevated vacuum tubing that pulls sap steadily down when it runs, a reverse osmosis machine to remove water from the sap, a new, large evaporator to process the sap, and even new canning and filter systems have been put in place over the last few years on both farms.

Waldron's Far Hills is actually now the largest maple syrup producer in the state, using these high-producing methods on about 27,000 taps, and processing about 7,500 gallons last year. Some years, Waldron says, he sells bulk syrup to producers in Vermont and other northeastern states because that's where the most demand for maple syrup currently comes from.

With all this success in the maple syrup industry right here in Northwest Michigan, it may be surprising to hear that it's only the tip of the iceberg. According to a Michigan State University Extension Forestry Department report, maple syrup is one of the exceptional Michigan agricultural products for which there is no surplus.

"Demand far exceeds the available supply," writes Mel Koelling of MSU's Forestry Department. "The industry is not expanding, even though less than 1 percent of the potential resource is being used."

Waldron and Parsons say this can and should change, as maple syrup can offer the state a massive, profitable industry based on a renewable resource that Michigan already has in abundance.

"There's a lot of potential out there that's not being tapped," Parsons say. "We have the ability to be No. 2 in the country, based on the number of maple trees we have. Only New York state has more."

The global maple syrup market is mostly dominated by Quebec, Canada, which produces up to 80 percent of North American maple syrup sold each year, but the potential for the U.S. to claim a larger share of the market is there.

"There's been a lot more people getting into it and starting new sugar houses -- it's basic supply and demand," says Waldron.

Waldron has been among maple syrupers lobbying the state legislature to consider taking some actions to encourage the maple syrup industry in the state.

"Part of our meetings are just to bring attention to the idea from the Michigan Legislature, just to get it on their radar," he says. "I think we all know that the days of a factory providing 4,000 jobs for the town in one swoop are just gone. The jobs are coming a few at a time from smaller businesses."

The keys to unlocking a future that makes the most of a Michigan maple syrup industry will be investment, commitment and state backing, the producers say.

For one thing, much of the maple trees in the state are on large tracts of state land, and the state could allow private tapping in some locations. Some tax incentives also could help start new sugar houses or help build up existing operations.

It could mean a brighter future for the whole state, and the same kind of memories for another generation of Northwest Michigan children.

"It's a tradition, and it's part of our heritage," Parsons says. "It's a lot of work, but it's a lot of fun. It's a good time for being out in the woods working."

Kim Hoyum is a freelance writer based in northern Michigan. Her credits include contributor to Geek Girl on the Street as well as a regular writer for several weekly and monthly publications. Hoyum is a graduate of Northern Michigan University where she obtained a Bachelor of Arts in writing.
Signup for Email Alerts