Every year in the little town of Shepherd, Michigan, just a 15 minute drive from Central Michigan University, hundreds gather for the Maple Syrup Festival.
The Maple Syrup Festival is a four day event with festivities beginning Thursday and ending Sunday evening, always the last weekend of April. The festival includes a huge flea market, craft show, amusement park rides, a historical tour of Shepherd’s train depot, a classic car display, tractor pull, helicopter rides and much more.
However, bringing all these things together is a process that begins early in the year, sometimes even as early as February.
The process begins when there is a warm spell in the winter weather. When the temperatures go up during the day, and down during the night, it causes the sap in the trees begins to flow. This weather marks the beginning of sugar season.
The tapping process is very simple, according to Ron Rhynard, president of the Shepherd Sugar Bush Corp. First, a small hole must be drilled in the tree, then a little metal tube called a spiel is inserted into the hole. Once the tube is inserted a bucket is hung under the opening and the sap begins to drip in.
It is important to check the buckets everyday and not let them overflow. In Shepherd, the sugar Bush relies on volunteers to lend a hand and get it all done. Volunteering to help with sap is even part of the Shepherd Princess Pageant tradition, according to Jon Morgan, a local journalist who runs the Shepherd Journal.
Early in the sugar season, the best trees will have a 2% sugar content in their sap. This means that in the best conditions, it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. However, as the season progresses the sugar content in the sap will decrease.
Once the sap has been gathered and combined, it must be boiled down. This is a pretty simple process, stick the pot on a burner and boil until the sugar content is high enough.
Sugar content is often measured using a hydrometer, however, some back-yard sugar bushes will just taste the syrup until it is satisfactory. Once the syrup is done, it simply needs to be stored.
The Shepherd Sugar Bush Corp begins their process in March, collecting sap from trees. They harvest from all over Shepherd and the surrounding woodlands.
Syrup production tends to go in cycles, one year may be very good, and the next pretty poor. Below is a graph showing the number of gallons of syrup made in Shepherd since 2006, according to the Morning Sun newspaper. The “good-year, poor-year” cycle is clearly seen.
While 1500 gallons of syrup may sound like a lot to the average person, however, Rhynard isn’t impressed. Rhynard is not only the president of the Sugar Bush Corp, but also the son of one of the key founders of the organization. Maple Syrup has been a big part of his life. “It hasn’t been a terrible year,” Rhynard said. “But certainly not the best either.”
Sugar season always ends before the trees begin to grow leaves, at this point, the sap will become more bitter and is no longer good for making syrup. Not all trees are equal sap producers either. The best tree to tap is accordingly named the Sugar Maple, these have the most sugar content and will typically produce the desired 40 to 1 sap to syrup ratio.
Other trees that are often tapped include red, black, and silver maple, and box elder trees.
Shepherd is not the only place making syrup in Michigan. Average maple syrup production in Michigan is 90,000 gallons a year, with an annual revenue usually around $2.5 million. Additionally, in 2013 Michigan produced a whopping 148,000 gallons of maple syrup, according to Michigan Agriculture Council. This fantastic year of sap harvest is reflected in the above graph and the 2,375 gallons of maple syrup produced by the Shepherd Sugar Bush Corp.
Now that the season is over, many families have bought their year’s supply of Shepherd maple syrup, hoping it will last them until the next sugar snow.