The University of Wisconsin received a three-year grant worth $470,387 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to expand its maple sugaring outreach.
Jeremy Solin is a fourth-generation maple syrup producer and some of his earliest memories are helping out with his family's longtime maple syrup business a little north of Antigo.
He remembers sitting at a kitchen table with his grandmother, pounding a nail through the top of a metal Folgers coffee can so they could wind a piece of wire through it, so they could hang it from the spout on a tree.
"We just used whatever we had, right?" Jeremy said.
Solin runs Tapped Maple Syrup in Stevens Point and is also the maple syrup project manager for the University of Wisconsin-Extension. He believes that maple syrup has huge market potential and he wants more people to become aware of.
"I really think of it as a rural development strategy “I really think of it as a rural development strategy," he said on WPR's "The Larry Meiller Show." "We have tons of land, tons of maple trees — millions of maple trees. Less than 1 percent of them are currently being tapped... It’s an opportunity for people to generate income off their land and use that to build community and build local economies around maple syrup."
Wisconsin ranks fourth in maple syrup production nationally, behind Vermont, New York and Maine.
In 2021, Wisconsin 850,000 trees were tapped statewide producing about 300,000 gallons of maple syrup, up from 265,000 gallons in 2020. Production has more than doubled since 2006 when about 100,000 gallons was produced.
"There’s just incredible potential to continue to grow that," he said.
The University of Wisconsin-Extension received a three-year grant worth $470,387 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to expand its maple sugaring outreach by aiming at "private woodland owners, farmers, tribal communities and other groups that have been overlooked by previous outreach efforts," the release states. According to Solin, it’s the first of its kind in Wisconsin.
"So, we'll really try and leverage all of those resources to help support the industry in the state," Solin added.
The outreach includes education; however, education has different meanings to different people.
Solin said the state's Indigenous population is an audience they want to target. He said some tribes, however, have been making maple syrup for tens of thousands of years.
"They obviously have a lot of tradition and heritage around this, but are looking to the future potentially — additional revenue streams and things like that," Solin said. "So, (we are) working to support their efforts."
Indigenous peoples from the northeastern part of North America were the first group known to produce maple syrup and maple sugar. Aboriginal oral traditions and archaeological evidence suggest that organic raw maple tree sap was being turned into syrup long before Europeans arrived. European settlers adopted the practice and advanced production methods. Next to raw honey, maple syrup and sugar are the most popular natural sweeteners in North America.
Several tribal legends passed on through oral story telling explain how maple syrup production began. Some stories give credit to the squirrel, the Nanabozho or the Glooskap. Another popular story claims that venison was cooked in tree sap and served to the chief. The sugaring season became an important time for aboriginal tribes. Rituals were celebrated based around sugaring and celebrating the first full moon of spring, the Sugar Moon. Maple syrup was used as a sweetener and a flavor enhancer.
Native Americans collected syrup using primitive tools. They carved V-shaped notches into the tree trunks using sharp stones, they diverted the sap flow with concave pieces of bark or reeds into birch bark buckets. The sap was concentrated by freezing the sap and removing the frozen water or by dropping hot stones into the buckets to evaporate the water. The production of maple sugar is one of the only agricultural processes that evolved in North America.
Climate change worries
There is some concern among some producers that the maple sugaring business is beginning to show the results of climate change.
Solin said the sugaring season has come earlier, and when he would make syrup with his dad and uncle, sugaring would begin in early April, now it starts in early March.
"This past year, we had an exceptionally short season," Solin said. "So, in our sugar bush, it was only three weeks long. So, all our maple syrup activities happened in the month of March, which meant it was a really intense, short season."
For sap to flow, Solin said the trees need to freeze during the night and move to above thawing temperature during the day — something like a 25-to-40-degree swing would be ideal.
"(When) the temperature warms up too fast, we basically don’t have a season, or have a very short season," said Solin.
Solin hasn’t so far seen dramatic effects in output, however. Wisconsin still produced more syrup in 2021 compared to the year prior.
Solin said some climate projections are worrisome. With warmer summers, trees grow faster and use more of their sugar.
"There have been some studies done, and the models show that there potentially will be lower sugar content in the trees as the climate warms," he added. "So, that definitely could have an impact as we move forward."
Inés Ibáñez, ecology professor at the University of Michigan said "The biggest trees will still be there but won't be growing as much and the little saplings won't survive," "(So,) once the older trees start dying, there will be no new trees to replace them."
Solin’s kids are the fifth generation in his family to join the maple business.
"The cycle keeps on going, right?" he said.