Published April 20, 2008, 12:00 AM

The annual ooze of Maple Syrup

The sap is running again as area producers help put Minnesota on the map
Jerry Jacobson took a look at the shelves displaying some of his bottles of maple syrup – which he produces from nearly 1,200 black and sugar maple trees on his 40-acre wooded property in Otter Tail County.

By: Tracy Frank, The Forum

Vergas, Minn.

Jerry Jacobson took a look at the shelves displaying some of his bottles of maple syrup – which he produces from nearly 1,200 black and sugar maple trees on his

40-acre wooded property in Otter Tail County.

Preparing to leave for the 2006 North American Maple Syrup Council Convention in Green Bay, Wis., Jacobson and his life partner, D. Mae Ceryes, decided to grab a couple of bottles to enter in a contest.

“We did it not expecting to win anything,” Jacobson said.

Lo and behold – competing against maple syrup producers from 19 states and four Canadian provinces – Jacobson won first place for his medium amber syrup and second place for his dark amber.

“That’s going up against all the big boys,” Jacobson said.

It was, in a way, a proclamation that maple syrup is indeed produced in Minnesota.

Yes, 70 percent of the world’s maple syrup is produced in Quebec. And yes, states such as Vermont and New Hampshire produce half a million gallons of maple syrup a year. And yes, the Arrowhead Region produces the most maple syrup in Minnesota.

But Otter Tail County residents like Jacobson and Stu Peterson – who started maple syrup production as a hobby – now boast businesses that produce anywhere from 250 to 400 gallons of syrup a year.

“A lot of people don’t even realize it is made around here,” said Jacobson, a 59-year-old retiree who started his business in 1994.

“That’s part of the mystique,” said Peterson, a

62-year-old retiree who in 1999 started his operation – which sits about 15 miles southeast of Jacobson’s near Dent, Minn. “When you think maple syrup, you think Vermont, New Hampshire. We’ve got an industry here … it’s just not as big, just not as well-known and just not as understood.”

Turn the faucets on

This past Wednesday night, temperatures in Otter Tail County dipped into the 20s. The next day, temperatures soared into the 60s.

That’s prime conditions for the maple syrup run – which annually occurs in April. The cold forces the sap to settle to the bottom of the trees. The warmth forces it back up, allowing the sap to flow out of the taps that were inserted into the trees in early March.

On average, the trees ooze out about 120 drips per minute. Sometimes, at the peak of the harvest, according to Peterson, “it’s like somebody turns the faucet on.”

That’s why Jacobson and Peterson were busy collecting sap and turning it into syrup this past Thursday.

“It’s a season in which you can start out wearing your snowshoes and end it wearing your shorts,” Peterson said.

For the past couple weeks, the sap on Jacobson’s property has been flowing through plastic tubes that are connected to clusters of as many as 10 trees. The tubing can be seen dangling from tree to tree across the wooded hillsides – allowing the sap to flow downhill into one container.

For commercial producers like Jacobson and Peterson, it is an efficient process to handle the amount of syrup they produce each year. Hobby producers like Dave Sanders of Moorhead rely on the traditional one tap, one bucket method.

“There are lots of people in the state who do it as a hobby and make only 15 to 20 gallons a year,” said Sanders, a 57-year-old truck mechanic who makes 50 to 70 gallons of syrup a year on his 40 acres northeast of Detroit Lakes.

In comparison, Jacobson hopes to produce 400 gallons this year while Peterson is aiming for 250 gallons.

Sweet-smelling steam

This time of year, Jacobson drives his all-terrain vehicle on the trails meandering through his woods. He pulls a trailer holding a 100-gallon bulk tank.

That’s where he dumps the sap. That sap is then dumped into the evaporator – a stainless-steel piece of machinery resembling a large wood-burning stove that sits in a shed.

The fire-operated unit boils the water out of the sap, turning it into pure maple syrup. Because the sap is nearly 98 percent water and only 2 percent sugar, it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.

Jacobson goes through 18 to 20 cords of wood to heat the evaporator. (One cord equals about two full-size pickup truck loads of wood).

“I may be forced to cut more wood this spring,” Jacobson said.

The evaporator, spewing the sweet-smelling steam out of the roof vents, handles about 120 gallons of sap per hour. Every 90 minutes, Jacobson measures the syrup density with a hydrometer.

“You want it to read 66.9 percent sugar,” Jacobson said.

A few steps from the shed sits a larger shed Jacobson built for what he calls the finishing area. It’s where Jacobson boils the sap on a stove to 211 degrees.

The heated sap is then run through a filter press – a machine equipped with 14 filters that can eliminate the remaining impurities of 14 gallons of sap in about 10 minutes.

“This machine has saved us days, especially with the amount of syrup we are doing,” said Jacobson, who purchased the filter press in 1998.

“As soon as it stays warm, then you are done,” Peterson said. “Then you can spend the next 10 months cleaning equipment.”

A license to tap

Unlike Sanders who taps maple trees for a hobby, Jacobson and Peterson have wholesale food-processing licenses.

It allows them to not only produce the syrup, but to sell it. Peterson sells most of his syrup to stores in the region. Jacobson sells most of his by attending about 16 street fairs during the summer.

And thanks to Jacobson, licensed producers have been able to receive tax benefits since 2000. That’s when Jacobson, with the help of local representatives Roxanne Daggett and Cal Larson, convinced the state Legislature that maple syrup should be considered an agricultural product.

“Products like honey were, but not maple syrup,” said Jacobson, who is in his third year serving as president of the 100-member Minnesota Maple Syrup Producers’ Association.

Sanders is a board member. And Peterson is the association’s secretary.

Together, they have helped the association become more aggressive in promoting its product – like pitching a booth at the state fair, publishing brochures and producing a Web site (www.mnmaple.org).

“When we got that Web site up and running, I guess we were shoo-ins for re-election after that,” Peterson said.

Something neither Peterson or Jacobson expected when they started tapping trees as a hobby. It was quite a change from Jacobson’s childhood days when his family would tap about 10 trees and boil it on an open fire on the same property where he lives today.

“By the end of the day, we would have five gallons of syrup,” said Jacobson, who now – every April – produces nearly 80 times that amount.

“It’s that time of year. The motion of the sap is what you’re always waiting for.”

Maple syrup facts

- It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup.

- Pure maple syrup is only made in the Canadian provinces of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and 19 American states, nowhere else in the world.

- In addition to Minnesota, the American states that produce maple syrup are Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin.

- Minnesota is the state with the most northerly latitude and most westerly longitude which produces maple syrup.

- Maple syrup is made in the spring, when the temperature gets below freezing at night and above freezing during the day.

- Nothing is added to the sap, only water is evaporated away to make maple syrup.

- A gallon of maple syrup weighs 11 pounds.

- There are three shades of Grade A amber syrup – light, medium and dark.

- Once a tree is large enough to tap, it can be used year after year.

- Each tap can yield 10 to 12 gallons of sap during a season (about one quart of finished syrup).

Minnesota Maple Syrup Producers’ Association

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549 or at kschnepf@forumcomm.com

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