It’s just about maple syrup season, another sign of the thaw. And for one family about fifty miles north of TC in Charlevoix, the tradition has been going strong for almost 120 years.
Last year, Amber Parsons Munday and her husband Phillip came back to Charlevoix to keep that tradition alive -- all the way from Australia. “Dad said he was ready to retire,” says Amber. “We headed back from Australia after Dad contacted us.”
The family’s history at the site bordering Harwood Lake dates back to 1898. Amber, Phillip and Amber’s sister Katie Parsons Untalan purchased the farm from their parents David and Terri last year, becoming the fifth generation owners. So they are tapping the same trees as their great-great grandparents.
In a video posted on their website, Phillip says the opportunity to continue the family’s tradition was too good and too important to pass up. “To take something that’s been in the family for five generations and keep it going is a real honor. It feels like a really special thing to be part of,” he says.
Munday says the plan is for the threesome to lean exclusively on the farm for their income. “I’m in customer service and event planning. My sister is a graphic designer. My husband is a gourmet chef,” she says.
They wasted no time in putting Phillip’s culinary prowess to work. Not only do they offer three grades of maple syrup in various sizes, they created additional items using maple syrup as the base, ranging from maple candy and honey-like maple cream to a soft peanut and almond maple brittle, maple catsup and maple mustard, maple cherry chutney, maple granola, Barbie Mate Maple BBQ Sauce, and Burning Bush Maple Sriracha.
Though they’re tapping the same trees as their ancestors, technology has improved over the past 100 years. Rather than gathering the sap in buckets, there is a complex tubing system in place. After trees are tapped, a vacuum system pumps the sap through underground lines to the farmstead, where it is introduced into the holding tanks. It’s then concentrated through a reverse osmosis machine. Evaporating tanks boil what remains of the excess water (it takes 40 gallons of water to produce one gallon of syrup), caramelizing the sugar.
To ensure there is never an overflow, if sap reaches a dangerous level when they are not in the barn monitoring it, an alarm is sent to owners’ cell phones. They then go and manually pump the excess sap into extra holding tanks.
Amber and her family are among the 500 commercial syrup producers in the state, joined by more than 2,000 home use/hobby producers.
Newly proposed legislation would give them all a boost. House Bill 4418 passed the state House last month and is headed to the Senate. The bill adds maple sap to the list of agricultural commodities exempt from seasonal vehicle weight limits.
“Maple sap is one of the only commodities that's harvested during the winter months, and state laws on vehicle weight limits during those months have limited the number of acres that maple sap farmers could tap into for their product,” notes Kent Wood, government relations director for the Traverse City Chamber of Commerce. “Michigan is thought to have enough product to be able to compete with other maple syrup-rich regions including Vermont and Québec.”
Michigan has more than three times as many sugar maple trees as Vermont, but only about one percent of Michigan’s maple forest resource is utilized for maple syrup production.