Going with the FLOW

Maple syrup production in full swing around county

HERSEY — A 40 degree-day with temperatures in the teens at night may be pleasant for the average person, but for a maple syrup farmer, that day is perfect.

In a business that relies solely on the environment, the contrast of warm and cold temperatures makes sap travel up and down the trunk of a maple tree and is ideal for retrieving the sweet liquid.

With more than 25 years of experience, maple syrup farmer Doug Sengelaub knows the recipe for success of the process of “taking the blood from the tree.”

“A tree runs on the east side in the morning, on the south side during the middle of the day and on the west at night. It follows the sun,” Sengelaub said. “If the sun goes behind a cloud, the flow will slow right down.”

He tapped 412 trees on the south and west sides of each tree with 10,000 feet of interconnected tubing. Trees in nearly a quarter mile area are connected by the spider web of tubes which runs downhill into a tank in his “sugar shack.”

“Generally the sap runs well before a rain and after a snow,” Sengelaub said. “You get to know the trees after you do it for a while.”

From the tank, the sap then goes into a large evaporator that boils the sap and gets rid of the water, bringing any foreign material to the top where it can be skimmed off. When the sap reaches the perfect density to be considered syrup, it is drained into buckets and poured through a filter before being sealed in jugs.

Each batch takes about three hours to boil and produces around four gallons. Forty gallons of sap will make one gallon of maple syrup.

The Sengelaubs sell their pure maple syrup at the Hersey Roller Mills Store, Wright’s Bakery and a fruit market in Traverse City as well as out of their house in Hersey. Pints cost $8, quarts cost $15 and one gallon costs $45.

Michigan is fifth in the nation for maple syrup production, with farmers producing 123,000 gallons last year for an estimated profit of $3.69 million, according to MSU extension.

“Maple syrup production is a big business in Michigan,” reported MSU Extension Forestry Educator Russell Kidd. “A lot bigger than many people may think.”

A typical maple syrup season begins the first week of March when the weather beings to warm up and lasts up to four weeks.

Three years ago, the season ran for a week and a half and Sengelaub harvested 16 gallons from 150 trees. Last year, the season ran for four weeks and he harvested 70 gallons from around 425 trees. Due to warmer than usual weather this year, with 487 total taps, he expects 30 gallons from a week-long season.

“It’s been an odd winter,” he said. “There have been days in December, January and February that the sap would have run.”

The business is a long-standing tradition in the Sengelaub family and began when Sengelaub’s grandparents harvested and sold maple syrup in the 1940s and ‘50s. His grandfather then sold his property and equipment in the 1950s, and Doug brought back the tradition in the 1970s.

“We tapped six trees one year and cooked it on the kitchen stove and it just escalated from there,” Sengelaub said.

On the wall of the shack is an old wooden sign with the words “Pure Maple Syrup for sale,” that belonged to Sengelaub’s grandfather. He said the business is a hobby and he doesn’t want it to get too large.

“I got into this for the fun,” Sengelaub said. “If it gets too be too much work, that takes the fun out of it.”

The Sengelaubs hosted a Free Waffle Day in the sugar shack Sunday and invited locals to enjoy the fresh syrup, which they plan to make a yearly tradition.