Minnesota's maple syrup production runneth over

Simple Gifts maple syrup
Bottles of Simple Gifts maple syrup line a windowsill. Each bottle is labeled with the weather conditions on the day the syrup was made.
MPR Photo/Dan Kraker

The seemingly never-ending winter might have Minnesotans grumbling, but for one small group of people, the weather has been pretty close to perfect. Many maple syrup producers are reporting record harvests.

For a May 3 in northern Minnesota, the conditions are, well, miserable. Absurd, even, as it's barely above freezing. A cold misting rain dampens the forest even more about six miles inland from Lake Superior. But Dave Rogotzke is happy. Really happy.

"Every storm that came along, I just took great delight in every storm, because we produced these abundant crops," Rogotzke said. "I told so many friends I had to be the happiest guy in Duluth."

On a windowsill he displays bottles of syrup from each day of the winter the sap ran. And he's labeled each bottle with that day's weather conditions.

Simple Gifts maple syrup
Bottles of Simple Gifts maple syrup line a windowsill. Maple syrup labeled with the weather conditions on the day the syrup was made at Simple Gifts Syrup in Lakewood Township, Minn. Owner Dave Rogotzke says the rare April snowstorms created ideal maple syrup conditions.
MPR Photo/Dan Kraker

"Record snowfall, snowstorm, brilliant sunshine. All those snowstorm days yielded large production days for us, because it was above freezing, and it was low pressure, and we had big days."

Those big sap days result from the same weather that draws howls of protest from most elsewhere. Temperatures that drop below freezing at night but then warm up --sort of -- during the day, frees the sap to run. Rogotzke said this is the most syrup he has produced in 13 years.

"Our crop this year, at this point we're sitting at 1,204 finished gallons of syrup. My previous best had been about 1,100 gallons," Rogotzke said. "Who knows we might get a day or two yet to add to that record."

Rogotzke taps 5,500 maple trees on his land in Lakewood Township. This isn't your grandmother's operation, with buckets collecting sap under a few trees. Here, miles of blue plastic tubing snake around the forest at eye-level and on the ground, funneling sap from acres of maple trees to a 3,000 gallon holding tank. From there, it's pumped into a tank where reverse-osmosis removes much of the water from the sap. Then, it's boiled down into syrup in a 14-foot stainless steel evaporator.

Pumphouse
Dave Rogotzke collects some sap in this pumphouse. From here, a vacuum suctions the sap to a holding tank, where it is then fed through reverse-osmosis to remove much of the water, before it's finally boiled in a 14-foot evaporator to make maple syrup.
MPR Photo/Dan Kraker

"We can go through over 200 gallons of concentrated sap in an hour," Rogotzke said. "When I had my big day of the season this year, we produced 180 gallons of finished syrup on the 16th of April. That was a five-hour boil for us."

And the most syrup Rogotzke has ever made in a single day. Other producers across northern Minnesota are experiencing similarly sweet seasons.

"In this area it's a record harvest for us, and I'm hearing that from other producers," said Stu Peterson, who taps trees in Dent, in west-central Minnesota. He's also president of the Minnesota Maple Syrup Producers Association.

"We've been getting reports from members around the state. We're just hearing everybody has had a really long. lengthy, and very productive season," Peterson said.

He even made syrup today -- his first-ever May boil.

"We just came out of winter under ideal circumstances for maple producers," Peterson said. "It was long and slow. In sharp contrast to last year, when within about a ten-day period we went from March to June weather."

But the record April snowfall also hurt some syrup producers. Jerry Jacobson uses buckets to collect sap from some of the 2,000 trees he taps in Vergas, near Detroit Lakes. He collects them with an ATV. But there was so much snow when the sap started running, he couldn't get to the buckets.

"In fact, we had a lot of containers that were running over. We could have lost maybe a third of our sap as a result of not being able to go get it," he said.

Jacobson said he will probably end up with 350 gallons of syrup -- an average year for him.

"If we had been able to get all the maple sap I'm sure it would have been our best year ever," he said.

Still, Jacobson's not complaining, especially after last year, when the record warm spring caused the worst year in memory for syrup production.

Now, like all Minnesotans, he looks forward to seeing buds on his trees -- a sign the syrup season is over and spring is truly here.

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