Michigan farms keep eye on demand for natural maple syrup

A U.P. business wants to be the solution to the supply problem for natural, organic maple syrup, which is in high demand lately.
This isn't another sugary maple syrup story. You know, the feel-good one about carrying on the family tradition of tapping trees in late winter and nights boiling down sap in an old shack up in the hardwoods. No, it's about maple syrup production becoming a profitable business right here in Michigan--even more profitable than logging the trees that bear the sap.
           
Health conscious consumers are finally taking notice of this perfectly delicious, organic alternative to refined sugar and high fructose corn syrup. Like natural spring water, that is now bottled and sold by the boat load, the sap used to make maple syrup has been around for eons. It's just now starting to get the attention it deserves as a healthy, natural product, which is good news for anyone with maple trees and a desire to turn a profit.
 
Sweet opportunity
 
Entrepreneur Mike Ross, of Rudyard in the Eastern Upper Peninsula, has been watching this train of opportunity coming up the tracks and is keenly aware of the ramped up demand for maple syrup (there has been a 70 percent increase in demand for maple syrup products nationwide since 2012-2013), and would like to see Michigan be a leader in its production and sales.
 
However, right now Michigan and the U.S. are taking a back seat to Canada in maple syrup production; four of every five gallons of maple syrup consumed in the U.S. comes from our northern neighbors, even though Michigan has enough maple sap producing trees to supply this burgeoning business on its own. We're only tapping 0.2 percent of our trees and yet we have three times the amount of maple trees as Vermont, which currently leads the nation in maple syrup production.
 
"This is no longer a hobby," asserts Ross, owner of Michigan Maple Farms (formerly, RMG Family Sugarbush).  "The potential for maple syrup production in the northern lower and upper peninsula is tremendous." He says Michigan also has three-and-a-half times more tappable trees than Quebec, which is the leading producer of maple syrup.
 
Ross, who also is the current owner of Whiskey River, a construction firm in Rudyard, has transformed a family business, located in the U.P. back country, into a full scale production facility, with a fork lift driver moving pallets of maple syrup to a loading dock and retail space full of everything a would-be maple sugar producer would need to start tapping trees as a hobby or business.
 
"I've started a number of businesses," says Ross, who, with a ball cap and faded t-shirt, looks more like a guy who just jumped off a bulldozer than a visionary entrepreneur and business owner. "I see an opportunity and I take advantage of it," he says. The opportunity he saw in this business was not only selling maple syrup, but also selling the tools and equipment other producers need.
 
"No one wants to wait to buy something," says Ross. To accommodate his customers, who come from Michigan and northwestern Ontario after hours, he has a night pick-up room.
 
It's all about awareness
 
Ross sees the importance of helping other maple syrup producers, which will also help build awareness for the industry as a whole. Ross helped form the Commercial Maple Syrup Producers Association, which held its first annual conference August 28-29 in Gaylord. The nonprofit group is seeking to secure a portion of the $20 million the federal government, via the Farm Aid Bill, has put aside to promote the maple syrup industry. Ross hopes the organization can slice off a piece of the pie and give it to Michigan, or more specifically Pure Michigan.
 
Ross and the association hope to build on the momentum they're seeing across the nation and bring as many people on board as they can to this healthy, wholesome product, particularly folks in the Midwest, which is behind East Coast consumers in maple syrup consumption. To this end Michigan Maple Farms hired a Chicago marketing firm to help with increasing awareness and marketing their product. The firm suggested the name change that is helping the business transition from sounding like a hobby operation to the formidable company it has become. Michigan Maple Farms is also working on updating the labeling of their product.
 
More profitable than logging?
 
Ross, who uses facts and figures a lot to support his arguments, says logging firms are starting to take notice of the potential in maple syrup. He says maple syrup producers can expect to make seven-and-a-half to 10 times more annually producing maple syrup than they would from logging. In a "have your cake and eat it too" scenario," they can still log the property where the trees are being tapped, like he is doing with his own tracts of land, sparing any veneer trees that might be on the property. He says everything is on a cycle that makes the business of maple syrup production and logging truly sustainable.
 
As for maple syrup, it's not just for pancakes. Ross and other purveyors of maple syrup are offering a range of maple syrup flavored products, including barbecue sauces, salad dressings, and maple sugar for baking. Consumers are finding new ways to use it in place of refined sugars or corn syrup every day, as well, in recipes for cooking, baking and drinks.
 
Ross says the momentum he sees in the maple syrup industry is like a snowball rolling down a hill, getting larger and larger as it rolls down the hillside. The maple syrup industry currently adds $2.5 million to Michigan's economy. It could add a lot more if they can keep the ball rolling. And that would be a sweet ending to this story.
 
Neil Moran is a freelance writer/copywriter and owner of Haylake Business Communications. 
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