Roger (Pete) Schmidt, 86, is keeping a close watch on the maple trees in his yard.
The Plymouth resident is expecting the sap to flow just about any day now.
Every spring, Schmidt taps lots of maple trees in his area of the “Big Woods,” or what’s left of it, to make maple syrup, which has been a family tradition since his great-grandparents farmed this very same land.
Personally, Schmidt likes to drizzle maple syrup on pancakes, eggs, ice cream, salad — “just about anything,” so he’s looking forward to replenishing his supply, he said last Wednesday, pointing to bare shelves in the cool cellar of his home. Maple syrup makes for a good sugar substitute, he said, adding, “When you live in the woods, you do as they do.”
A lifetime in the woods has taught him to be patient and to wait for Mother Nature to reach just the right weather conditions for maple syruping. Last week, it was too cold, so he didn’t see too much activity in the trees, Schmidt said. But he has higher hopes for this week or next.
For maple syrup producers like Schmidt and others across the metro area and beyond, taps are in and ready to go, and it’s a waiting game at this point.
Schmidt is unsure of what this season will bring, though, he’s guessing it’ll be “fair” and probably not as impressive as last year. The spring came on so gradually that “the trees ran like the devil,” he said, adding, “You almost had to gather the sap twice a day.”
By the end of the run, he wound up with 53 gallons of syrup, which got divvied up among his family and friends.
But in 2012, it was a whole different story. The change from winter to spring happened in about a week, which made for an all-too-brief maple syrup season, he said.
And just as the big trees around him are disappearing, giving way to development — Schmidt donated 2.7 acres of the natural area to the city last summer to offset that — maple syruping is largely “going away in this country,” he said.
Interest is up
But on the local level, the activity is seeing something of a resurgence, according to Chris Ransom, secretary for the Minnesota Maple Syrup Producers Association, a nonprofit group that offers resources to maple syrup and sugar hobbyists and commercial outfits.
Ransom, a Vadnais Heights resident, said the activity has garnered more interest in recent years, at least from what he can tell anecdotally. The organization’s membership has risen, probably by about 15 percent over the past eight years. “My gut feeling is that more people are making it” outside of the association, as well, though he’s not totally sure why, he said.
In his own case, he decided to try it after reading about it in the newspaper a dozen years ago.
For some people, maple syruping is a new tradition.
Coon Rapids resident Jeff Gomall likes that it gets him outside in the springtime, and he enjoys the manual labor involved.
He harvests the syrup at his relatives’ Andover home. His dad and his two sons get involved, too. He hopes they’ll carry it on into the future. “It’s neat to be a first-generation syruper,” he said.
Gomall has gone from tapping 25 trees to 100 trees. Last year, he boiled sap for 26 hours straight. “It’s addicting. Me and my buddy Brandon, we seem to always want to do more,” he said.
It’s appealing to him as someone who’s always liked do-it-yourself projects. “You know you made it, and that’s a big thing,” he said.
Curiosity pulled him in
Don Somers, a physician, sort of stumbled into maple syruping when his family bought property in Minnetrista in the ’90s. He came across a box of spigots, called spiles, along with a drill bit, in the cabin. The maple syruping equipment piqued his curiosity. “My son and I were inquisitive. We started learning about it and it became a passion for us,” he said.
It wasn’t long before the Somers family expanded its operation into the Somerskogen Sugarbush. Somers even takes time off work to harvest the sap from hundreds of taps. He and his family sell bottles of the resulting syrup. “My wife calls it a hobby out of control,” he said.
For him, it’s a good way to get outside and take in the earliest signs of spring.
When he first bought the place, he didn’t know the difference between a basswood and a maple tree. Now he knows what to look for and what has to happen to get the sap. It takes 40-degree days followed by nights that plunge to below freezing. “When you get a few of those strung together, you can get [the sap] flowing,” he said. “If you can get a good swinging temperature, you can get a gallon per tap or more in a day.”
Barometric pressure plays a role, too. “It’s a lot like farming,” he said. “You get ready and then you wait.”
Fun and tradition
Debbie Cash, the lead naturalist at the Harriet Alexander Nature Center in Roseville, which taps up to 15 trees for educational purposes, said the fact that it’s dependent on the weather is part of the fun. “I find it refreshing that there’s something that humans can’t control,” she said.
At drop-in events at the center, including those that are coming up this weekend, Cash provides some background on maple syruping and sugaring, including what comes next, after the sap is gathered.
One has to “cook the sap and boil it until 97 percent of the water boils off. What’s left is the syrup,” she said.
To take it a step further, “If you cook it more, it’ll be maple sugar,” she added.
During park events, she cautions people not to cook the sap inside the home. “There’s so much steam that wallpaper comes down and walls get sticky,” she said.
It’s a time-consuming process, which is why it’s so expensive at the grocery store, she said.
There’s a rhyme and reason behind selecting certain trees and the number of taps they can handle, as well. She likened it to giving blood. “We can give some blood and it doesn’t hurt us. If we gave too much, it would probably be a problem,” she said.
She also talks about its origins among American Indians, something that Jim Simas, a Rosemount resident, is well versed in.
Simas, who hails from the Seneca Nation of Indians, continues to return to the sugar camp where he first learned how to tap maple trees in the ’70s. He and his partner, Deb White, call it Porky’s Sugar Camp, after Porky White, an American Indian who showed him how to do it when he was a teenager. The hilly sugar camp is located near Lake Independence.
For Simas, it’s important to carry on the Indian tradition of making maple syrup and sugar.
In the old days, it was important for survival until the lakes warmed up for fishing again, he said. “It might’ve been the only food you had for several weeks,” which he stresses to the school groups that come through, he said.
Simas, who taps several hundred trees on the 58-acre property, uses old-fashioned equipment, including brass kettles “like they used 150 years ago,” which he found at an antiques store.
Charley Underwood’s south Minneapolis home lacks maple trees, but this year he’s managed to tap 50 trees in and around the area.
Underwood has challenged himself to see “how much of my diet can be super local,” so he reached out to neighbors, he said.
Last year, his neighbors got to taste the syrup that came from their trees when he hosted a pancake breakfast.
“My dream is that enough people realize the resource we have with the maple trees,” he said.
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.