Sap tapped, but not flowing
Spring is here, but the maple trees don’t believe it — the sap isn’t running yet.
What with the deep snow and the lingering winter temperatures, it’s been a tough year so far for maple syrup producers in the area.
“Last year we were done at this time, we’d pulled all our equipment,” said Jerry Jacobson, who taps about 2,000 trees on 120 acres near Vergas. “This year we don’t even have a drip in the bucket,” he said on Tuesday.
Linda Leitheiser said the story is the same on the 51 acres near Detroit Mountain where she and her husband have 130 taps. Not all of them are installed yet.
“When you drill a hole (to put the tap in) the sawdust that came out was just dry,” she said. “Sometimes, it starts dripping immediately.”
The deep snow made a labor-intensive job even worse — the snow had to be shoveled away so buckets could be placed on the ground under the trees to catch the sap when it does start flowing. And moving around to place the buckets and taps becomes a slog when the snow is deep.
“This year was tough,” Jacobson said. “We were in snowshoes. Some (bucket sites) were above three feet deep.”
“I really hope the snow melts soon,” Leitheiser said. “It’s a lot easier to collect (sap buckets) when the snow isn’t there.”
What the sap is waiting for, of course, is the right combination of warm daytime temperatures and cold nighttime temperatures. Jacobson would like to see it in the 40s or 50s during the day and mid-20s at night — that gets the sap really flowing, he said.
The worse thing that can happen when you’re trying to harvest maple sap is for the weather to jump right into late spring, with too-warm nighttime temperatures.
“If it’s above freezing all the time, it slows down and quits,” Leitheiser said.
Last year the sap started flowing in early March, but it ended after about a week because of unseasonably warm temperatures, Jacobson said.
“It really varies from year to year,” he added. “A good season is two to three weeks of the right temperatures, that’s what we’re looking for, then we get a pretty good crop of maple syrup.”
The best year yet for Jacobson and his domestic partner, D. Mae Ceryes, was 2011, when they burned through their whole stockpile of 20 cords of hardwood and had to cut wood on the fly to keep the evaporator cooking.
They bottled 365 gallons of maple syrup that year under their “Jake’s” brand, which they sell at shops around the area and at craft fairs during the summer.
They also produce 11 different berry syrups, including chokecherry, wild plum and highbush cranberry, as well as assorted jams and jellies. “There’s a lot of cooking involved,” he said.
They grow the berries themselves.
“We have orchards all over the place,” Jacobson said. “Wherever I can find a bare spot.”
Leitheiser said she and her husband have been making maple syrup for about 10 years, from trees on 40 acres they own and another 11 acres owned by her in-laws.
She’s philosophical about the lingering winter weather.
“We’ve just had a couple really warm years,” she said. “We’re reminded that we’re in Minnesota and it happens.”
Jacobson hopes the sap starts moving soon, because odds are by mid-April the season will be over.
He wants to collect enough sap to put his new reverse osmosis equipment to work.
Normally, you have to boil down about 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of maple syrup, and that’s a lot of wood-fired heat.
The osmosis equipment has membranes that remove 70-75 percent of the water from the sap.
“So if I have 1,000 gallons of sap coming in from outside, I only have to boil 300 gallons,” Jacobson said. “So my 14-hour day is now four hours.”
Jacobson bought the osmosis unit because the workload was getting to be too much for he and Ceryes, who together handle the whole maple syruping process from start to finish.
The osmosis unit can process 600 gallons of sap per hour. The pure water that comes out of the process is stored in large plastic tanks and then pumped back to clean the membrane at the end of the day.
The osmosis equipment saves fuel and labor.
“Everybody that has these say they would never go back,” he said.
Jacobson has buckets and plastic lines all over his woods. The lines connect anywhere from eight to 24 trees, running from their taps and using gravity to carry the sap down to collection tanks.
From there they go to converted dairy tanks outside his cookhouse, where the cooker sits ready to go.
In another building are jars and packaging materials, along with two stoves and special stovetop pans designed to heat the processed syrup to 200 degrees prior to bottling and sealing.
The Vergas Maple Syrup festival is Saturday and Jacobson is expecting to host some tours.
Everything is just waiting on the sap to run.