Michigan's growing maple syrup industry remains largely untapped

Michigan is 6th largest maple syrup producer in U.S.

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DETROIT - Maple trees are all around us in Michigan, so it shouldn't be any surprise that the state's maple syrup industry is exploding. Although production and demand are at an all-time high, the industry remains largely untapped.

Michigan has more than three times the amount of sugar maple trees as Vermont -- the largest producer of maple syrup in the country.

Michigan has only tapped 0.2 percent of its potential maple taps. The largest producer of maple syrup in the world is Qu├ębec, Canada -- they have tapped 34 percent of their trees.

"Michigan could be the top producer of maple syrup within the next 10 years," said Mike Ross, owner of RMG Maple, currently transitioning to Michigan Maple Farms. RMG Maple is the largest buyer, processor and equipment retailer in Michigan.

"Consumption is only 1/7 of the consumption on the East Coast. We are lacking in promotion -- we need help with that," Ross said.

While Michigan maple syrup is in high demand around the state, it's actually a national trend. Here are some fun facts:

  • The maple industry in Michigan generates about $2.5 million annually, and growing.
  • There are over 500 commercial syrup producers, not including more than 2,000 home use/hobby producers.
  • On average, Michigan syrup production tops more than 90,000 gallons per year.
  • In the U.S., production of maple syrup from 2012 to 2013 increased 70 percent.

The increase in demand and production is being noticed by the Michigan legislature. State Rep. Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, introduced a bill in April that would add maple sap to the list of agricultural commodities that are currently exempt from season weight restrictions on roads.

"This bill would be huge for us," said Ross. "We'd be looking to use some of the money to work with Pure Michigan on promoting our industry."

Ross also noted that the logging industry in Michigan has prohibited many producers from tapping the huge number of untapped maple trees around the state. Michigan's logging industry produces over 15 million Christmas trees each year, or about 15 percent of the nation's supply. Since the 1940's, logging has been limited, and is done selectively to preserve and protect the remaining forests.

Forest production in Michigan contributes $14.6 billion to the state's economy annually. Currently, the state's Qualified Forest Program offers tax breaks in exchange for land owners allowing logging on their land.

This sentiment is shared among small and large maple producers.

"Because of Michigan's abundance of sugar maples, it has the potential to be No. 1 in the maple syrup industry," said David Parsons, owner of Centennial Farm in Charlevoix, the 5th generation to operate the farm. "But comparatively, we do not have the support from the state or the maple associations."

Parsons acknowledged the technological growth with maple, and sees the potential for continued growth. "I have seen larger operations be implemented and expansion of existing maple businesses. I have also seen the expansion of maple, value added products," he said.

The upward trend in demand correlates with the need for locally produced and natural products consumers seem to look for on grocery shelves.

"It's the only brand of maple syrup that we sell," said Bryan Bandyk, marketing director of Westborn Markets, referring to Michigan maple syrups. "Consumers want to support local producers, not to mention the fact that it's a great tasting product."

Bandyk said there has been an increase in orders for Michigan-produced syrup and honey products. "We've gone from needing a new shipment every month to twice a month. In some case even more," Bandyk said.

With close to 300,000,000 sugar maple trees in Michigan alone, the maple industry will continue to grow, but without government regulation and consumer awareness, that growth may be capped -- and those trees could remain untapped.

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