Bob VandeBunte, left, and his brother Rog in their steam-filled sugar shack, boiling down sugar maple sap to make syrup. Photo by Pete Daly
There is a mystique in Michigan about making maple syrup, but making lots of money apparently is not part of the allure.
That is rather odd, because the experts say the demand for maple syrup always exceeds the supply, even at $48 a gallon or $10 a pint.
“A lot of money comes into this, but a lot goes out, too,” said Bob VandeBunte. He and his brother Rog, partners in VandeBunte Maple LLC located just east of Hudsonville, made their first few gallons of maple syrup in 1978 for fun. Once they got good at it, they discovered a consistently strong market for the gourmet sweetener — but they wisely kept their day jobs.
To rely on maple syrup production as a main source of income would be hard, said Bob.
“You wouldn’t be eating any steak,” added Rog.
Rog was a manufacturing engineer for 36 years at the General Motors stamping plant in Wyoming; he retired before the plant closed in 2009. Bob, who is younger and recently retired, was a truck driver for Gordon Food Service. The brothers began production of maple syrup seriously in the 1980s and are now among the best known commercial producers in West Michigan.
A few weeks ago, Gov. Rick Snyder declared March Michigan Maple Syrup Month. The state ranks sixth in the nation in production with an average of about 148,000 gallons annually.
VandeBunte syrup isn’t sold in stores or at farmers markets. The brothers sell it all from their Sap Shack, where their evaporator is located. They have a steady flow of customers who call first or just stop in when they see steam pouring out of the vent on the roof. The brothers have cultivated a long list of customers, who this year ordered about 250 gallons well before the sap started flowing.
They hope to produce 350 or 400 gallons this year, “but it’s 100 percent weather” that determines the amount, said Bob. A bout of warm weather can mean a sudden end to the season. A cycle of freezing and thawing temperatures is what gets the sap flowing — and if it’s flowing at night, they collect it and evaporate it at night. A drop in barometric pressure, which means stormy weather is coming, increases the flow of sap, he said.
Last year was “an excellent year,” said Rog, with 400 gallons produced. At 45 gallons of raw sap to obtain one gallon of syrup, they started with about 18,000 gallons of sap, which looks just like water because that’s mainly what it is.
The VandeBuntes did a lot of research on maple syrup production and talked to many other producers, including some in Canada — more is produced in Quebec than anywhere else. In fact, maple syrup is produced only in Quebec and Ontario and in a few north-central and northeastern states in the U.S. The brothers also joined the Michigan Maple Syrup Association, and Rog eventually served as an officer.
The VandeBuntes innovated with technology to make their production as efficient as possible. They figure they have probably invested $25,000 to $30,000 in their equipment, which includes “miles” of tubing from the trees to pumps, not to mention sophisticated evaporating and filtering equipment in the Sap Shack.
The first couple of years, Rog said, they didn’t “take a nickel out” of their sales. “Everything went back in” to the business. “If you’re wondering how to make money, this is the wrong place,” he joked.
Both brothers love the interaction with customers. The fun is clearly part of their compensation.
The VandeBuntes may have been the first to pump raw sap through a swimming pool filter before it goes into the temporary storage tank — “which is now the standard; every major producer does that. Years ago, nobody did,” said Rog.
Before the stored sap goes into the evaporator, it is run through a reverse osmosis pump, which separates most of the pure water from the sugar. The concentrated sap is then pre-heated to 180 degrees in copper tubing before it goes into the evaporator pan “and that speeds everything up,” said Rog.
The evaporator is state-of-the-art, too. The sap is heated in a long pan whose bottom is a series of steep ridges, exposing the sap to more hot surface area. The evaporator pan is about 8 feet long, but if the same amount of metal was in a flat pan, it would be about 30 feet long.
Digital readouts indicate the exact density of sugar. When it has boiled down to 66 percent sugar on the Brix scale, it is ready for the pressure filters, which makes the end product very clear. The lightest colored syrup is at the start of the season; it gets darker as the short season progresses.
Many maple syrup producers that are open for public tours, such as Blandford Nature Center, typically burn wood under their evaporators. The VandeBuntes abandoned that after a few years because a wood fire has to be tended constantly to maintain the high, even heat required, so they now burn fuel oil.
Two particular aspects of business strategy have worked for the VandeBuntes. One is their market: Rog said they decided early on they did not want to sell their product on weekends at farmers markets or craft sales, as do many producers. So they worked hard to successfully develop a long list of repeat customers. They also decided to keep it simple: Just the two of them do all the work with no additional help. What they have going now is manageable.
Depending on its size, a sugar maple can have from one to four taps. This year they own 1,300 taps and lease enough additional trees for another 500 taps.
Perhaps the biggest commercial producer in Michigan is Mike Ross of RMG Maple, located in Rudyard in the Upper Peninsula, who may be collecting from as many as 25,000 taps, according to the VandeBuntes. A quick look at Ross’ website shows his business also includes the sale of equipment to other producers.
One year the VandeBuntes tried to boost production by leasing enough additional trees for 2,500 taps, and they were buying sap, too. But that turned out to be too much running back and forth among four separate wood lots and trying to keep an eye on the Sap Shack.
Rog said the operation now is “easily managed by the two of us.”
“It wasn’t fun,” said Rog, thinking back to that high-production experiment.