Maple syrup producers this year will either be flipping a lot of pancakes or eating more cereal, depending on where they live.
It’s been a fantastic, even record-breaking maple syrup season in some parts of Minnesota, say many people who collect maple tree sap and boil it into syrup as a hobby, business or public education program. In other locations, syrup fanciers say their production was just average or even below that.
Some say the season, which ended locally in late March, was longer than usual. Some say it was shorter. Some say the sap’s sugar content was especially high — producing more syrup by volume — while others were disappointed.
The reason, according to a Collegeville biologist, has to do with differences in sun and wind even in locales just 20 miles apart.
“It was a phenomenal year,” said Don Somers, a retired Minnetrista doctor who has been making syrup for 27 years and selling it online through his Somerskogen Sugarbush business. It’s “a hobby out of control,” he joked.
This year, Somers and his wife, Mary, started collecting sap on March 6, a week or so earlier than usual. By April 7, they’d made 643 gallons of syrup, nearly 30% more than average.
Why so much? “We had so many nights where it would get into the 20s, and during the days it would be in the 40s,” he said. Sap flows fastest when nights drop below freezing and days are warm and sunny.
The syrup operation at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Carver County produced 157 gallons this year, its biggest yield in 40 years, said Richard DeVries, the arboretum’s natural resources manager.
“Right from the start we had a couple really good weeks,” DeVries said. “We had full tanks of sap every day, almost.”
At Lowry Nature Center in Victoria, interpretive naturalist Brett Sieberer, who puts on syrup demonstrations for visiting school groups, started the season in late February.
“We were two weeks into March and I’m going, ‘This has the potential to be the best year we’ve ever had,’ ” he said.
“Then all this,” he added, “went down.”
Sieberer was referring to the statewide shutdown order to battle the spread of COVID-19. The nature center was still handing out samples at its annual syrup festival in mid-March, but by the following week, schools and parks were closed.
Lowry finished making syrup a couple of weeks early but still produced 16 gallons, as much as in a typical season.
“I was definitely bummed that we were leaving,” Sieberer said. “By shutting it down we probably left 4 to 6 gallons on the table.”
However, the maple season was just average for hobbyist Chris Ransom, president of the Minnesota Maple Producers Association. He made 15 gallons of syrup from about 60 trees in Vadnais Heights and said others in the group also reported average years.
“Maybe a little bit better, but not like they would blow the doors off,” he said.
So it went around the state. Asked to share how the season turned out, members of a Minnesota syrup makers’ group on Facebook expressed varying experiences. Producers in Cologne, Buffalo, St. Michael, Fridley and Dayton said it was their best year ever.
“Record year in Grand Rapids,” said Ronald Ulseth. “Very high sugar content. Previous best was 15 gallons. Already at 33 with more to come.”
But Dale Hillukka, who taps near Detroit Lakes, called it his second-worst season in 15 years. “Low sugar content in the sap and very sporadic flows,” he said.
How could the season be average — or worse — in one place, yet record-breaking 20 or 30 miles away? It’s actually not surprising, said Prof. Stephen Saupe, a plant biologist at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University.
Microclimatic differences can affect yields not far from each other, he said, “which makes it hard to give a blanket statement that it was a great year or a poor year.”
Saupe participates in the St. John’s Maple Syrup program, started in 1942 at St. John’s Abbey and now run in partnership with the university. The abbey uses about half the syrup and gives the rest to volunteers in the program.
“Years ago, the monks made a decision not to sell it, [saying] if they sold it to you they might make about $8 a pint, but if they give it away it’s priceless,” Saupe said. “So that’s been our motto.”