By Stan Maddux
Tom Cook was only 7 years old when he was hooked by the shiny evaporator pans boiling sap into maple syrup and the age-old outdoor craft that happens just as winter is about to release its grip.
He’s gone from tapping trees in his neighborhood and along roadsides to making syrup from his own 20-acre woods he planted himself outside Niles, Mich., in the southwest part of the state.
Now 54, Cook says it’s a special feeling to venture out with his dog to harvest sap from trees he watched grow from seedlings the past 30 years for making liquid gold.
“It’s always neat,” he says. “You’re just thinking. God, I planted these things and you’re making syrup from them, so it’s kind of cool.”
The owner of Cook’s Sugar Bush LLC at 70032 Gumwood Road doesn’t come from a family of maple syrup makers.
He caught the bug watching how maple syrup was made on trips with his father and mother to festivals and state parks.
Cook says he started by tapping trees in the yards of childhood friends and others in the neighborhood, then boiled down the sap on his mother’s kitchen stove.
He only made about a gallon of syrup in those days for consumption at home, then gave it up when other interests drew his attention as a teenager.
He was 22 when he bought an abandoned soybean field and planted about 10,000 trees ranging from hardwoods, such as oak and walnut, to the much softer white pine.
With an eye on one day making syrup again, Cook also planted a lot of maple trees in his budding forest.
Several years later, on the 5 remaining acres, he built the house that he still lives in today. “I always wanted a woods,” he says.
He was 33 when the urge to get back into maple syrup production took hold, but his trees were nowhere close to being mature enough for tapping. So, he took his taps, gravity tubing and other sap-collecting equipment to the 300 or so trees at various roadsides in the country and land belonging to family and friends.
Cook also began selling the 125 to 150 gallons of syrup he made each season from the sap of those trees. “That’s really how it happened,” he says.
Today, he offers his syrup at farmers markets, fairs and on the internet. Some of his product is taken by a distributor from South Bend, Ind., and sold retail. Customers also come knocking through word of mouth.
The labor-intensive task got a bit easier for Cook two years ago when his maple trees finally became mature enough to tap.
Now, he leaves the tubing system for collecting sap in his own trees instead having to remove and reinstall the equipment from trees elsewhere from year to year.
He’s also updated to a reverse osmosis machine that pulls two-thirds of the water out of the sap before it begins the boiling process.
Another time-saver has been switching to an evaporator powered by fuel oil to eliminate the need to split wood and stoking a fire while the sap boils down.
“It’s definitely work, but there’s some fun to it,” Cook says. “You kind of get addicted to it.”
One minor drawback of having his own trees is sap with a slightly lower sugar content. The quality of syrup remains just as high, but more sap must boil down to achieve the desired 66.5% sugar content for syrup.
He says the sap isn’t quite as sweet from trees in forests being more shaded. Shade cuts down on photosynthesis, the process plants use to convert carbon dioxide and energy from the sun to make sugar molecules and oxygen. Roadside trees, such as the ones he used to tap, don’t have to compete for sunlight.
“A lot of people call them sap cows,” Cook says. “They can just give you so much sap and volume of sap, and that sugar content is so sweet that you can make some really good syrup from them.”
The business is seasonal, so Cook makes his living in the burglar and fire alarm business. He’s also a former president of the Michigan Maple Syrup Association.
According to USDA, Michigan was the sixth-leading producer of maple syrup in the nation from 2016-18. Vermont was the top producing state, followed by New York and Maine.
Maddux writes from New Buffalo, Mich.