My name is Sue Battel (pronounced battle) and I’m a maple syrup producer, also known as a sugarmaker, in the thumb of Michigan. Do you know that Michigan is shaped like a mitten? Look for the thumb and that’s where I live, right in the middle! Our town is called Cass City. This is a rural area. Friends across the road have a cow-calf beef farm and most of our other neighbors are Amish people with small farms who work with wood or sell building materials for a living. It is very flat where we live, but with lots of trees. My part of the county has some swampy land that is too wet to farm. Our area is known for dairy farms and crops such as dry edible beans, sugar beets, corn and soybeans.
In addition to making syrup, we have a hobby farm. Our four kids raise broiler chickens, laying hens, pigs, dairy heifers, feeder steers and meat goats as 4-H and FFA projects. They show them at the county fair.
My husband’s family has lived on this land since 1882. That’s 134 years! Our children are the sixth generation to make maple syrup from our same trees. They learned how to do it from early European settlers in this area, who learned it from the Native Americans.
Have you ever tasted real maple syrup? Many people have not if they don’t live in the Midwest or Northeast where it is made. Pure maple syrup comes from maple trees. The table syrup at the grocery store that many people use on pancakes is usually made from corn syrup and flavorings with no real maple.
The trees that we use to make maple syrup are mostly sugar maple trees, with some red maple and black maple. The sap that comes from the tree is sweet, so the name for a forest full of sugar maples is called a sugarbush. Our farm name is Battel’s Sugar Bush. The little building in the woods where we make the syrup is called our sugar shack.
Making maple syrup is very dependent on the weather. Being in the Midwest, we have cold and snowy winters. We begin to tap (that means drill holes in) our maple trees the first week of March. That’s when it still gets below freezing (32°F) at night, but is warming up so it is a few degrees above freezing during the day. Those weather conditions are just right for the sweet sap inside the trees to start flowing out of the holes we drill. Do you know how things expand when they warm and contract when they freeze? That’s called the freeze-thaw cycle and this is what gives the sap enough pressure to be pushed out of the trees during the day so we can collect it. We tap a small spout into each tree hole called a spile. The sap comes out of those spiles and into our buckets, bags or pipes (called tubing).
The sap is made of about 98% water and about 2% sugar. We store the sap for a short time in big stainless steel bulk tanks. Then, we boil it on our special pan called an evaporator. We make a fire under the pan and fuel it with wood from trees that needed to be cut down in the woods because they were old or broken. I bet you can guess what happens in the evaporator pan: Most of the water turns into steam and evaporates up into the air. That leaves us with pure maple syrup, which is 67% sugar. You can do the math to figure out what percent is water. Next, we filter the syrup to make it nice and clear. Finally, we put it into bottles and jugs for our customers.
The syrup season ends just after the vernal equinox (first day of spring) in late March when the weather starts to get warmer. Warmer weather signals the maple trees to come out of their dormant state and start producing buds. Once the trees bud, the sap tastes bitter so we stop using it to make maple syrup. Some of those buds will turn into tiny flowers that don’t look like the flowers we usually think of, then the flowers will drop and other buds will grow into leaves. The leaves will soak up the sun all summer long, making more sugar inside the tree using the process called photosynthesis. The sugar is the tree’s energy source, just like we eat food to give our bodies energy. (We only take out a small amount of sweet sap so it doesn’t hurt the trees.) In October and November, the trees will turn beautiful shades of red, yellow and orange. Finally, the leaves fall and the trees go dormant over the winter until the next spring.
We love having visitors in our sugarbush. We invite schoolchildren out for fun, educational tours. We invite the public to come to our annual open house. A few hundred people visit us each year. When people learn about agriculture as they go on a trip, it is called agritourism. If you ever come to the thumb of Michigan, come see us and we’ll give you a taste of sweet maple syrup!
Thanks for letting Flat Aggie come visit us!
Sue and Bob Battel and kids Addy, Dori, Asher and Elias
Grandma Diane and Grandpa Mark Battel
P.S. I list a number of educational links about maple syrup on our web site: www.BattelSyrup.weebly.com/learn. I also invite people to like our Facebook page where I update about our sugarmaking process throughout the season: www.Facebook.com/BattelSyrup.