Sugar Water or Syrup: Michigan Farmers Want You to Know About ‘Liquid Gold’ in Our Trees

By Isaac Constans

March 25, 2022

Michigan is one of the best states in the country for maple syrup because of its climate and biodiversity. So why don’t more people know about this hidden gem?

Need to Know

  • Michigan regularly ranks in the top five nationally for maple syrup production.
  • Demand for maple syrup has only increased during the pandemic, up some 20%.
  • Family farms often produce pure maple syrup, which varies greatly from the big national brands. 

CHELSEA, Mich.—For Kirk Hedding, it was love at first bite—or sip, or slurp, or whatever.

He and his wife Michelle are avid campers with a quirk. Wherever they go, they like to stop by and stock up at the local farmers market. 

One day about 16 years ago during a weeklong camping excursion in Holland, Michigan, the couple came across an interesting stand: a local farmer selling maple syrup by the jug. 

That certainly caught the eye.

“We both looked at each other, and I was like, I’m not sure if either one of us has had pure maple syrup before,” Hedding said. 

That first taste of real maple syrup—with heavy emphasis on the “real”—is an unforgettable, time-suspending sensation. You can’t gulp or scarf down maple syrup. The viscosity arrests your jaw and reclines your taste buds, which soak up every blissful, languid moment of epicurean pleasure. 

No one has ever had a dollop of maple syrup and just went about their chewing. The layers of sweetness command a pause, a break in the action to applaud their boldness. 

But that aromatic and complex stickiness doesn’t just hypnotize the tongue—it’s an exercise for the whole face: a rigid neck, perked eyebrows, and tilted chin sort of culinary pleasure.

Whether the Heddings had such a spiritual awakening or whether the preceding paragraphs came following a pinky’s worth of inspiration is irrelevant; the couple was hooked after that first taste.

Their “hobby gone wild” was born with the best campfire pancakes either had ever tasted.

“It’s pretty overkill for a hobby, but we enjoy it,” Hedding said.

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The Hobby Gone Wild

By the time the Heddings pulled back into their Chelsea driveway, they’d fashioned an idea. On their farm, which Michelle’s family had owned for generations, didn’t they have maple trees?

Sure enough, they did. In the 30-acre tree lot north to south, maples towered above. 

Once, cows grazed on this land. Now, the rigid trees with checkered bark and slender branches had taken back over, and many had reached the ripe age of 40 or older where they could be “tapped”—or explored for maple.   

“With the internet these days, you can literally find anything out,” Hedding said.

That first year, the Heddings tapped 10 trees, figuring out the process. 

In the early days of their dabbling in syrup chemistry, the process was rudimentary, with next to no costs or investment. They cooked down the sap in a turkey fryer, and kept the liquid gold for themselves and family. 

Some batches were better than others. After all, the only ingredient is maple sap, the lifeblood of trees that is about 98% water. The right consistency for maple syrup is about two-thirds syrup—really about 68%—and the rest water. Simply, there’s a lot of distilling, even if it’s straightforward math. (It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup.)

But over the season, they pieced it together. The following year, they scaled up to 50 trees. The next, they hit the triple-digit mark.

As they sold off product, the time had come for an evaporator, a machine that heats up sap to the sweet spot, where water molecules float away and the sugary syrup remains. 

Quickly, the family, now with two daughters, became maple experts. Even the kids got involved.

Kirk and Michelle Hedding, like many Michiganders, had grown up having artificial sweeteners with their waffles—”sugar water” is too kind of a term, for it’s actually high fructose corn syrup with fake coloring, citric acid, and cellulose gum.

“Those types of syrups are primarily made out of corn syrup and a lot of additives to them, and one of them is not maple syrup,” Hedding said, though he insists there’s no rivalry.

Too many people have been brainwashed by Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Butterworth. They think this is real syrup. (It’s not.)

When maple syrup falls on unbaptized tongues, some people don’t like it. It’s too heavy or too sweet, even though it’s every bit as natural as a toasted almond.

In other states, naivety might be reasonably excusable. But in Michigan, it’s not: The state is one of only about a dozen in the country that can produce maple syrup, and it teeters on the top five of production every year.

Maple syrup is often associated with Canada, and it’s true. Quebec is No. 1 by a longshot. Look at the Canadian flag and you’ll recognize its signature maple leaf.

But Michigan shares many of the qualities with its northern neighbor that make for good syrup: rich and moist soil, on-and-off freezing temperatures during spring, and long-standing tree lots packed to the brim with maples. 

(And, fun fact: Michigan could turn out much more maple syrup if it chose to, as it has some of the most sugar maple trees found anywhere. But we choose to tap just 1% of maple trees, because many are in dense forests or state parks.)

The End of a Season

On March 22, the trail into the woods is muddy. Hedding slogs through in shin-high firefighting boots—from his full-time job—to go switch over the pump that facilitates sap from forest to shed. That’s where his storage tanks, evaporator, and reverse osmosis machine sit. 

By all measures, this is an ugly spring day, but for Hedding and maple syrup farmers, it’s a welcome sight. Trees can only be tapped in a four-to-five-week window every year, as winter becomes spring. This recent freeze offers one last tapping chance.

Maples become dormant during the winter—”hibernating… like bears,” Hedding explains—because sap freezes over during the cold temperatures, not flowing from roots to branches. But on days like these, when the sap has dethawed during a warmer day, it waits in liquid form, just an inch and a half behind the outer layer of bark.

Tree tapping is a simple process first discovered by Indigenous people in America. Now, with electric tools, it’s easier than ever. You just need a screwdriver, drillbit, and spile—a metal straw plugged into the insertion that drains the sap from the tree.

The woods in Hedding’s side yard are covered in an elaborate network of hoses that flow from tree (or 600 trees actually) to the centrally located pumping station at the lowest point of the sugarbush—the common term for a cluster of maples. All hoses drain downward, meaning that sap flows freely with gravity.

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But Hedding uses a pump anyway to accelerate the process. In tree tapping, time is of the essence. With such a short window, you need to maximize your sap flow, especially since your final product is just about 3% of the volume of all the sap you take in. By using the pumps, Hedding can double intake.

During peak days, these hoses dump in water in bucket-loads, and the pumps work nonstop. Today, there’s only a trickle. It’ll be enough for a batch, but that’s it. 

The season is coming to a close, a little bit short. 

“Our season is all based on Mother Nature and temperature swings,” Hedding said.

Business Is Sweet 

Recently, 500 people descended on H&H Sugarbush—not a bad turnout for what’s still technically a hobby farm. 

Every spring, the Michigan Maple Syrup Association puts on Maple Syrup Weekends, when local families can tour sugarbushes and see how it all works.

“It’s one of those things that when you enjoy it, you don’t get tired of talking to people about it,” Hedding, the president of the association, said. 

The Chelsea community has caught on pretty quickly. After all, this is the founding place of JIFFY mix. If anyone knows how to bake greatness, it’s Chelsea.

As Hedding has scaled up production, he’s reconnected with more people from high school and their families. Once they caught wind that the Heddings were selling maple syrup, they had to come by and try it.

H&H Sugarbush has a table set up outside with all its products. Hedding and his wife, high school sweethearts turned sweet-tooths, operate on the honor code. People can stop by and pick up what they want, leaving the correct amount in a money box. Regularly, it’s a chance to reconnect with former classmates, their kids, and their parents.

The availability of locally tapped maple syrup brought the town (and people from all around) together.

Zingerman’s, in the nearby big city of Ann Arbor, even uses the H&H Sugarbush for its breakfasts. That’s how you know it’s the real deal. (See reviews for Zingerman’s Roadhouse.)

While other farmers were forced to dump perfectly good food because of consumer fluctuations, the biggest pandemic-related challenge Hedding faced was making enough syrup to meet demands. Over the past two years, he saw more people drive up in pajamas, looking to fill a morning meal gap. Pandemic pancakes were apparently a thing.

(Pro tip: Hedding likes it with yogurt to start the day. His wife likes it with vanilla ice cream. “Of course, I’ve got more maple syrup than a lot of people do, so I use it a little more. I use it in grilling and baking,” Hedding said.)

That’s not to say that there isn’t work to do for Hedding and the Michigan Maple Syrup Association. 

Some members within the community want to sell more of their maple without having to undergo inspection from the Department of Agriculture. Since Michigan maple syrup is all-natural and usually not mass-produced, farmers can sell a certain amount themselves without having to go through the usual checks and balances.

Some of these “food cottages” are hoping to see a new law to let them ship their products, instead of just sell them at roadside stands or farmers markets. The bill has passed the Michigan House of Representatives with support from Democrats and Republicans and will now go to the state Senate.

Hedding also noted that several small business and agriculture stimulus programs, created from pandemic relief programs passed federally, have helped maple syrup producers meet demand and remain in business during uncertain times. 

“A lot of it was again learning how to distribute your product when you couldn’t just take it to the store, couldn’t just take it to people,” Hedding said.

But the Michigan Maple Syrup Association isn’t really about politics. More so it’s about informing people about what real, pure maple syrup is—demonstrating especially.

As Hedding knows, one taste is enough to tell a whole story.

“It’s just like us: We really didn’t know about maple syrup until we were in our late 20s, early 30s, and a lot of people still don’t know you can make maple syrup in Michigan,” Hedding said.

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