'It’s like drinking sunshine': Sunny year in southern Minnesota makes maple syrup extra sweet
Jim and Joe Jirik harvest maple syrup every year on their farm just west of Faribault on the shores of Shields Lake, where they also raise certified organic grains, cattle and honey. Favorable sap runs this year have made for record breaking syrup production.
KILKENNY, Minn. — The secret behind the great taste of organic maple syrup made by Jirik Family Farms may be the 100-year-old maple trees, the rich soil or the way they process it over wood fire.
But the extra sunlight from last summer may have resulted in the best batch of syrup ever produced by father-son Jim and Joe Jirik.
Jirik Family Farms, located 12 miles west of Faribault on the shores of Shields Lake, produces certified organic grain, pasture-raised finished beef, raw honey and a variety of vegetables in the summer. They also produce certified organic pure maple syrup this time of year.
“We’ve been on this farm for 30-some years, and we've been making syrup for close to that much time too,” said Jim Jirik on Friday afternoon on April 8.
Jirik said the first year they used just two pieces of equipment — a small tank to evaporate with and a finishing pan. Their production has come a long way since then, and they’ve upgraded evaporators twice but still use that first tank to feed concentrate from their reverse osmosis machine.
Contributing it to rich and fertile soil, Jirik said sap from their trees is known to have a high sugar content — generally over 2%.
“We had some this year that came in at 4.5%, which is really unheard of,” said Jirik of the sugar content.
The high sugar content could also be linked to a good growing season last year for a lot of their crops, said Jirik.
“The trees are just like any other crop, and there’s more to harvest when there's more sunlight,” said Jirik. “This maple syrup is like drinking sunshine — we’re actually pulling last year's sunlight that hit the trees, and that's what we're harvesting.”
Above freezing temperatures are required for the trees to start flowing and the process to begin. A single tap on each tree connects to a vacuumed tubing system, which draws the sap from the tree and sends it to a central location downhill, where it gets pumped out when it’s full.
Jirik said they need about 3,000 gallons of sap before they can fire up the cooking stage of the process. It begins with the sap getting run through a reverse osmosis machine where its concentration is increased.
“We take about 75% of the water out of the sap,” said Jirik.
That aids in the time they have to spend boiling and saves a ton of wood — which their evaporator runs on. Jirik said that most commercial syrup operations use fuel oil or natural gas.
“Because we use wood-fired, we feel that our syrup has a different and more unique taste to it,” he said.
Jirik said their stack temperatures reach above a thousand degrees — nearly twice the heat of propane or fuel oil. That creates a caramelization with the sugar, he said, along with an incredible smell.
“That's the first thing that people say when they come in the building — wow it smells so good in here,” he said.
A family operation
For the most part, it’s just Jim and Joe Jirik handling the production of syrup in the spring. Joe, the oldest of five siblings, works mostly in the woods while Jim takes the lead in turning the sap into syrup.
“It's a family deal, and I raised five kids that were all involved with the syrup operation,” he said.
The process includes other families as well, said Jirik, some of which collect sap themselves and bring it to the Jirik farm to be turned into syrup.
“So if they don't have time to do that, or the setup to boil it down, we'll take care of that for them,” he said. “There's a unique opportunity for a lot of people to be involved in this.”
Although the Jirik family produces much more than just syrup on their farm, it’s become another mainstay for the operation and turned into an enjoyable pursuit.
“It is a good excuse to go in the woods, which we all enjoy to do,” said Jirik.
And it helps them take advantage of a time when not much else can be done for the growing season. Plus, the season only lasts about 20 days, said Jirik.
Once through the evaporation process, the product goes through a filter press that removes impurities and niter — minerals and solids that come out of the sand during the boiling process that also are called "sugar sand." The barrels are then sealed and stored, and pulled out one at a time to separate in bottles.
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Jirik Family Farms get their sap from hard maple trees, some of which are 100 years or older, said Jirik.
“This is an old-growth forest, and it's one way for us to generate a little income from those woods,” he said. “We want to keep the trees standing because we enjoy the trees, and we're very good stewards of the woods.”
For that reason they don’t tap trees that are small in diameter, or trees that might show some illness or something else going on with them. And they don’t over tap.
“It's very critical that we do things right,” he said.
Taps are pulled immediately when the season is over, and when trees are revisited the following year, if the last tap hole hasn’t healed entirely yet, they often skip over it.
The markets for selling their syrup are diverse and include a few grocery stores, meat markets and several farmers markets, said Jirik.
“We also sell right off the farm, where people can come and buy a case,” he said.
There are even a couple stores in Alaska that carry Jirik Family Farms syrup.
“We're just starting to explore more and more markets because our operation has expanded,” he said.