Central Minnesota maple syrup maker Broken Heart Sugar Co. hopes to salvage a slow season
It was a slow start, but improved weather could mean the sap seekers will prevail in producing the highly sought after syrup.
DEER CREEK, Minn. — It was as if the maple trees were sweating Wednesday, April 12, as temperatures flirted with 70 degrees in central Minnesota.
“I think they’re starting to wake up,” maple syrup farmer Jim Heinze said from the seat of his tractor as he looked out over a sea of blue plastic bags hanging from hundreds of maple trees. Some of the bags had a few cups of sap in them, while others had gallons of the sweet stuff. Stepping in close to the bags and you could see and hear the dripping.
It was a rather rude awakening, as the woods, just three days earlier, had been covered in several feet of snow and air temperatures barely surpassed freezing for the last four months. But a string of 60-70 degree days and above freezing overnights obliterated most of the snow, even deep in the woods, where the sun remains shaded.
Walking the woods was much easier than the start of the season for the Broken Heart Sugar Co., which Heinze started about three years ago as a hobby. He and some neighbor friends tapped trees March 17, and in the first week of April had harvested just 225 gallons from over 400 taps. In order to start tapping trees, they had to blow the snow off the paths with a tractor through the woods, then walk through snow over their knees to tap each tree.
It was a far cry from the last two years. The 2022 season was five weeks and three days of tiresome work as the drip was slow and drawn out. 2021 was hard and fast.
But on that April afternoon in 2023, the tree roots were clearly at work drawing up moisture and turning it into sugar-filled sap. The crew were out emptying the bags into buckets and the buckets into a large plastic tote in a cage behind Heinze’s tractor. On that day they brought in nearly 340 gallons. And while that was a full tote, they’ve had better days.
Helping Heinze was Jayden Doll who stopped by after school to help out on the operation. Bryant Crabb is also a helper and next-door neighbor to the property that Heinze utilizes to tap the sap. The two younger men walk the woods emptying the sap into buckets while Heinze mans the tractor and formulates his action plan once they return home.
While Heinze doesn’t have a single maple tree on this property, he found some nearby neighbors who were willing to lend their trees for the purpose for a few weeks out of the year. It’s turned into quite a partnership that allows them to produce many gallons of syrup that he both gives away when he can and sells at nearby businesses in Wadena and Otter Tail counties to hungry customers.
While just three years into this “hobby,” Heinze has made the most of it with some of the latest in technologies. From start to finish, the sap goes through multiple pumps from small tanks to larger milk tanks. He filters the sap then runs it through reverse osmosis to further concentrate the sugar content at his shop, which he playfully calls “World Headquarters.” During the height of the syrup season, Heinze often sleeps in "World Headquarters," as the process can go on all day and night.
He then boils the sap down in his sugar shack using a wood burning stove. Throughout this process, the sap is only touching stainless steel and comes out of the tap at just the precise temperature he sets with an automatic valve that he can adjust based on the barometric pressure at that moment. He doesn’t leave his syrup making to chance. Not when it might only last a couple weeks.
He’s got a long list of people eagerly waiting on this syrup, which he now offers in three flavors. There’s original, bourbon and coffee.
“We’ve got lots of places that want some (syrup), I just hope I can deliver,” Heinze said inside his sugar shack the following morning. “You know, hopefully we can salvage this season to some extent.”
Heinze said the combination of below freezing days and then switching to days with no freezing was a good way to make a bad syrup season. The ideal is when temperatures fall below freezing overnight, then rise up into the 50s during the daytime. Lucky for the Broken Heart crew, it appeared that there were a few of those days ahead.
“Hopefully we’re going to get a good run,” Heinze said. A good run would be 600 to 700 gallons a day. But some days, there’s no flow at all. “There are so many unknowns.”
Heinze had expectations of making a couple hundred gallons of finished syrup, but feels they won’t hit 100 gallons of finished syrup based on the direction this season has taken. When it takes some 40 gallons of maple sap to get just one gallon of syrup, it’s a game of getting as much sap as they can when conditions are right.
"It's just been tough going," he said of the season so far.
Lifetime of syrup
Heinze is retired from a career of setting up automation systems across the country. His work allowed him to visit and help at maple syrup farms in four other states along the east coast. He got his start in the maple syrup world working at his uncle's property near Collegeville, Minnesota. To be able to collect and cook his own syrup and share it with others is a dream come true. Throughout a season, he might get as many as 20-25 friends and family members that are happy to help with the annual spring event.
Despite having gallons of syrup on hand, he never tires of the taste of the amber colored liquid. As a fresh batch is poured out of the cooker, he always takes a sample to make sure it’s as good as the last.
“Isn’t that good?” he asked, as he took a taste of the syrup that just dripped from the tree 12 hours earlier. “Ya know it don’t get any fresher than that.”
Heinze said clean equipment and correct consistency help to make sure he has the best tasting syrup on the market.