SAWYER — Tapping maple trees to make syrup is a late winter tradition at Covenant Farm in Sawyer.
Dan Dale shared the time-tested process of creating the sweet treat with two groups during Chikaming Open Lands-sponsored Maple Syrup Tapping tours of the farm on Saturday, March 6,
Dale said Covenant Farm has a conservation easement with Chikaming Open Lands to permanently protect natural areas on the 70-acre property that runs from Flynn Road to Minnich Road (where it meets the Galien River).
“There were 30 acres of played put corn and soybean fields when we got the place back in 1978, and we re-forested that,” he said, adding that a mix of 4,500 white pines and 5,000 native hardwoods such as red oak, white oak, cherry, walnut, silver maple were planted in the 1980s. Some disease-resistant American chestnuts also have been planted more recently. The long-range goal is to have a mature hardwood forest with a smattering of the pines.
“The white pines act as trainers to force the hardwoods to grow straight … and we’re just slowly going through and thinning the white pines,” Dale said.
But those trees don’t go to waste. They are milled right at the farm and used to build barns, cabins and other facilities on the property including the Meadow House those touring the farm walked past. The leftover “fletches” from that milling process are burned to heat the evaporators (built from old file cabinets) in the “sugar shack” where maple sap is boiled down to syrup – a process that begins in a warming pan and goes through several more steps involving different evaporation pans before the nearly finished syrup is taken indoors to the restored farmhouse’s kitchen where its temperature can be monitored. Dale said 217 degrees yields syrup in Michigan, while anything over that gets you sugar which can still be made into tasty maple candy.
Dale said many of the maples tapped for sap (only the sugar and silver varieties work) are located in an area of the property that has been growing longer than the re-forested area. Many of the tapped trees (the overall total is about 75) are on a south-facing slope near a scenic oxbow pond (a remnant of an old, unsuccessful Army Corps of Engineers project that is now a healthy wetland home to frogs, turtles and birds). He noted that sap runs the longest in south facing areas because the trees there get more sun.
Dale said each repurposed one-gallon milk container attached to a tree can collect up to nearly two gallons on a good day (although most will be closer to a gallon and not require being emptied out during the day). Large plastic buckets are used to store the sap for a tractor ride back to the sugar shack.
Dale said the perfect weather conditions for maple syrup tapping is below freezing at night and above-freezing during the day – the exact conditions forecast for March 6 and 7 – but not for the next week or so after that.
“The sap started running a week ago Monday in the sugar maples, and then five days later it started running in the silver maples,” Dale said. “But because we’ve had a number of nights where it didn’t get below freezing and a number of days it didn’t get above freezing until late in the afternoon, it hasn’t been a consistent sap run.”
Still, as of March 6 he said members of the eight families that collectively own Covenant Farm have collected enough to make about four gallons – more than half-way to their usual yearly total.
‘We try to do between five and six-seven gallons for our own use each year,” he said.
Making maple syrup is a time-consuming process. The boiling portion in the sugar shack can go on for about 10 hours per gallon since it takes 40 gallons of the water-like liquid that comes out of the tree to create one gallon of syrup.
“We’ll just boil ’til probably midnight, maybe go through the night depending on how we’re doing,” Dale said, adding that guitar and fiddle music along with some Scotch may come into play to help those in the sugar shack “get through the night however we can.”