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Syrup producers eager to tap into Michigan's maples

Posted on March 31, 2015 at 5:25 PM

When Joe and Bobbi Woods bought a 40-acre parcel in Rapid City, they weren't thinking about starting a maple syrup farm. They planned to grow hay.


What started out with a just few buckets 20 years ago, has now grown into a nearly 600-gallon maple syrup operation annually. It’s a family operation for the Woods. During syrup season, their son Grant usually helps out, checking to make sure the sap flows freely through the line system.


"I know there’s a guy over in Gaylord who has three-thousand taps and they’re all on buckets. And I don’t think I have enough friends, who would help me out with that everyday," says Grant Woods, smiling.


Instead of buckets, the Woods take advantage of a massive web of lines that weave a complicated system through the forest. Sixteen-hundred taps are connected to lateral lines and then to a few main lines.


Like a web, the line system stretches out and collects sap from 7 acres of maple forest -- Photo Credit: Daniel Wanschura

"A perfect day is when, I walk the lines, I find no leaks," Woods says. "We go back and we make 40 gallons of syrup in one evening, usually drink a few beers during that time, home and in bed by 10:30 or 11."


In addition to maple syrup, the Woods family makes cotton candy, granular sugar and even a barbecue sauce. The syrup is valuable, too. It sells for about $57 per gallon in Michigan.


Maintaining the market


Joe Woods says there are a number of large maple farm operations popping up in Michigan, with thousands of taps instead of just hundreds. His concern is making sure the local demand is growing with increased production in the state.


"If we’re going to tap the trees, we’ve got to make sure we have the market to go with it," he says. "It’s probably the biggest fear that a person has is somebody down the road puts in more taps than you do. Who’s market are they going to take? Are they going to take your market or are they going to make their own?"


So, Woods has been active in the state’s maple syrup association. Recently they were able to obtain a federal agriculture grant. This enabled them to hire a marketing firm and an executive administrator. Though the association eventually wants to develop global markets, the immediate goal is to develop the local ones.


"Basically we needed to do a little kick start with the promotion of our maple syrup," says Woods. "We were seeing an influx of out-state syrups coming in, and we just needed to get the word out that Michigan can be a real player in the production of maple syrup. And that we need to provide local foods for our local people."


Raising the awareness


The association focused this year on Michigan Maple Syrup Weekend. Syrup producers like the Woods, opened up their farms so visitors could see how maple syrup is made. They believe more and more consumers in the state will choose the local, natural product, if they simply know more about it.


Inside the sugar house, the huge evaporator works overtime to boil the sap as it comes in. Ryan Greiner and his family drove up from Traverse City to taste some of the fresh syrup. He likes knowing where his food comes from.


"When they take their time to open up their facility here and share and talk and are very personal- that’s where I’d like to know my contributions are being spent," he says. "Aunt Jemima doesn’t do this for people like this."


While Joe Woods doesn't expect to be on the shelves of Wal-Mart anytime soon, with customers like the Greiners, he’s ready to expand his own operations next year. He taps about seven acres right now; next year he hopes to add a couple more.

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