MARQUETTE - It's a popular pancake topping that recently received its own month of recognition in March by Gov. Rick Snyder. And while many Upper Peninsula natives partake in the work for profit, one Negaunee man does it for other reasons - he gives it as gifts.
That product is maple syrup, and that man is Jeremy Johnson. Johnson, who owns Rainy Creek Construction in Negaunee Township, just began his third season making his own maple syrup.
"I had always gotten gift cards for my customers at the end of construction jobs to say thank you," Johnson said. "I wanted to have something more personable. I have 10 acres and said to myself, 'You know what, I'm going to give this a shot.'"
Trees are tapped with spouts and buckets to collect sap on Jeremy Johnson’s 10 acres. He tapped close to 400 trees this year. (Journal photo by Abbey Hauswirth)
A valve and measuring device are seen. This is how the density of the the syrup is tested. (Journal photo by Abbey Hauswirth)
Unfiltered sap is seen in the evaporator. Once the product is filtered it is brought into Johnson’s home where he and his wife bottle the maple syrup. (Journal photo by Abbey Hauswirth)
Hitting the ground running, Johnson went on eBay and bought 25 buckets and spouts and as soon as spring arrived he tapped 25 trees.
"I found myself running home after work to see what was in my buckets," Johnson laughed. "Even before bed I'd run out there and think, 'Oh my gosh! It's still dripping!'"
In the beginning, Johnson said he cooked the syrup in his backyard in a pan he had made. After the first year, he told his wife he wanted to build his own sugar shack. They traveled to Wisconsin and hand-picked the logs, which were shipped to his home. He then hand-peeled and scribed all the logs and built his shack. Finally, he invested in an evaporator. Last year he produced 180 bottles, which he said is average each season for him.
He added that there is no rhyme or reason to how much each bucket will collect. Some will become quite full, while others may only gather an inch or so.
Since its humble beginnings, Johnson's operation has grown and he now taps about 400 trees. During the first season, Johnson said his thought was that he would tap hundreds of trees and then sell his syrup to supermarkets. His feelings have changed over the years though, and he said he prefers to keep his production small and within the family. He and his wife have three young kids, which was one reason he began making syrup: to teach his children something new and have this activity to share with them.
Johnson said after the trees are tapped and have collected enough sap, he and his family, along with his coworker in the construction business, Marc Herring, strap on their snowshoes and head into the woods surrounding his home to empty the buckets into a large holding tank attached to the forklift of Johnson's tractor.
The forklift raises the tank up and gravity feeds through a hose attached to the back of the sugar shack. From there, the sap is transported into the evaporator and boiled. It comes through a valve where they check for density. According to Johnson, legal syrup boils at seven degrees above the boiling point of water. In theory, Johnson said he should be able to draw about a gallon of syrup an hour.
Once the syrup comes out of the valve, at about 211 degrees, it goes through a cloth filter and then is brought inside where Johnson has a bottler.
"Normally we collect in the day and then my wife and I bottle at night," he said.
Johnson noted that he preferred last year's season, which was unseasonably warm. According to him, the season only lasted four days, but he likes when the process is quick.
His customers have been very grateful of the more personal gift, he added. And he often hears that the syrup brings them back to when they used to help their grandparents make this sweet treat.
"I absolutely love this," Johnson said. "I'll probably be doing this forever."
Abbey Hauswirth can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 240.