'Just a teeny little trickle': Checking in on maple syrup flows in unusually warm January

A maple tree being tapped for syrup
Sapsucker Farms in Mora, Minn. is testing out it's syrup flow from maple trees amid an unusually warm winter.
Courtesy Jim Morrison

Jim Morrison, owner of Sapsucker Farms in Mora, drilled a hole and tapped his maple trees Wednesday morning to see if they are ready to flow.

According to the Minnesota Grown website, there are more than 100,000 taps in the state producing roughly 35,000 gallons of syrup.

MPR News host Cathy Wurzer talked with Morrison about the impact of this warm weather on maple syrup producers.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

[MACHINE DRILLING HOLE] JIM MORRISON: Little trickle-- there's just a little trickle.


CATHY WURZER: That's the sound of Jim Morrison, owner of Sapsucker Farms in Mora, drilling a hole, tapping his maple trees this morning to check and see if they're ready to flow. According to the minnesotagrown.com website, there are more than 100,000 taps in the state producing roughly 35,000 gallons of syrup. So we wanted to know how this warm weather is affecting maple syrup producers. Joining us right now is Jim Morrison. Hey, Jim. How are you?

JIM MORRISON: Howdy. Good afternoon. Funny you should ask this question. I just got a text from a cousin of mine who always comes up and helps us when we're tapping trees. And he said, "Tapping trees yet?" So it's a relevant subject. People who are into maple syrup tapping, or enjoying, or just want to know what's going on are definitely wondering this very question.

CATHY WURZER: Maple syrup in January though, Jim, is this a first for you and other producers?

JIM MORRISON: It's really unusual. And I guess, I'm not all that concerned about it at the moment. I think that there are a number of factors that have to be in place to really to get a decent flow. So I think-- the short answer is I think we're a little early. But I'm happy to talk about the factors, things to look for, and what we saw when we went out and tapped a tree earlier today, what we've seen or what-- and which is what we do.

Because we'll get a little nervous. We'll start thinking, oh, it's beautiful out. Are we missing something? Well, we'll go tap a tree or two. And we'll just-- we'll watch it and see how it's evolving. And then when it's on, then we know it's time to move.

CATHY WURZER: So do you think-- given what you saw today, is it time to move?

JIM MORRISON: No. There are a number of factors that one needs to consider as to when the flow is beginning. And temperature is but one of them-- the cycling of the temperature, frost in the ground. And incidentally, I went out and tried to drive a stake in the ground, a metal rod. And there's still a lot of frost on the ground, wind, our latitude, how much-- is it sunny, the side of the tree, and I think a host of other things that we're just trying to figure out.

But I think it's a little early yet. It's not unusual when you get a warm spell this time of the year. You'll drill a hole. And you'll see just a teeny little dribble. And that's what I saw and nothing more of it. And it'll be-- if it's colder, in a few days, that dribble has stopped. And typically, what we look for historically is sometime in the middle of March, might be a little earlier or a week or two later, and depending on your latitude.

For example, I've got family up in the Grand Rapids area. And it will happen there about 10 days after it happens for us in the Mora area. And I've got a friend down in the Santee area, not-- surprisingly, not that far. But things will begin for him about a week in advance. So I usually get good intel. When things are starting with him, I know I better get ready. But we had just a teeny little trickle, not too excited about that. But typically, middle of March, that's when we'll tap our trees. I'll be watching it ahead of time, like I said, putting out a few taps.


JIM MORRISON: And the other thing to bear in mind is once you put that tap in, you've only got about six weeks. And then the tree will heal that wound. So you really want to put that tap in when you're going to get the optimal results. And historically, like you say, late January just is not going to be it.

CATHY WURZER: And once the trees start budding, is it too late for you?

JIM MORRISON: Yes. That's a good question. So you're bracketing not too early, not too late. If you go too late, then you push into when the trees are starting to bud out. The chemistry and the sap changes. And it really becomes unpalatable. The old timers will call that buddy sap.

Again, if you tap too soon, then you're sitting there twiddling your thumbs, waiting for something to happen. But that six-week clock has begun. Because even though the tree is dormant and let's say you might have very little flow, or none yet, the tree is healing. So conceivably if you do-- if you tapped now, your taps are going to dry up no matter what's happening, probably by the middle of March. And then you've really missed the big flow.

CATHY WURZER: So you were out there tapping a little bit here this morning. How is this year compared to last year? Because last year, I'm betting you probably were slogging through a whole lot of snow.

JIM MORRISON: Oh, yeah, last year was quite an exceptional year. I think we probably had two feet of snow accumulated anywhere in the woods. So when you're walking around, it was almost up to middle of your thigh, which made it challenging whereas right now, we don't have anything. However, this is Minnesota. And it's only January 31st. So I would not be surprised if we still get some snow that may be substantive. I don't think winter is just over with yet.

CATHY WURZER: Well, we were talking to our meteorologist, Paul Huttner, at the beginning of the show. And he was talking about, looks like there's going to be some colder air coming through and maybe fingers crossed, some kind of moisture here in the next few weeks. So we'll see, preferably in the form of snow for many people who rely on the snow. So it sounds like you're not worried at this point. And are you going to go back out probably in March then and start tapping?

JIM MORRISON: Well, we'll -- I'll be out there watching the taps that we just put out. We just call those our test taps just to see-- just to make sure we don't miss something significant early on that it is a major change. I don't anticipate it. I think it's probably going to be-- for us, we generally will tap the trees the second Saturday of March.

And that's also largely because we invite a lot of people out to come and help. And it's hard to plan ahead spontaneously. It's much easier for people to say, OK, we'll plan on the second Saturday of March. And we'll come up. And we'll get all kinds of people here, people who've never done it before. They're just curious. They want to see it. And maybe they want to come home and then do it in their yard on a couple of trees. Or they just want to be able to say, we've experienced maple syruping in Minnesota.

CATHY WURZER: Excellent.

JIM MORRISON: But yeah, I'd say middle of March is probably when we're expecting.

CATHY WURZER: OK. Well, I wish you well, Jim. You are so knowledgeable. And thank you for taking the time and talking to us.

JIM MORRISON: All right. Well, my pleasure. It's a favorite subject of a lot of people. Like I said, I got a text just a few minutes ago. Somebody called me a couple of days ago. And I thought, wow, this is relevant. You all are right on the pulse of things. So I appreciate that.

CATHY WURZER: We try. Thanks, Jim. Take care of yourself.

JIM MORRISON: All right. Bye-bye.

CATHY WURZER: Jim Morrison is the owner of Sapsucker Farms based in Mora.

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