Maple syrup operation recovers from July windstorm

DULUTH, Minn. -- The maples were too cold to run sap on a bright March morning so Dave Rogotzke didn't mind a walk through his 40-acre sugarbush across a crusty layer of leftover snow.

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Dave Rogotzke checks the diameter of a small maple tree at his sugarbush in Lakewood Township north of Duluth. He's hoping that in a couple decades the tree will begin producing sap for maple syrup. Bob King /

DULUTH, Minn. - The maples were too cold to run sap on a bright March morning so Dave Rogotzke didn't mind a walk through his 40-acre sugarbush across a crusty layer of leftover snow.

Rogotzke carefully stepped over lines of plastic tubing that carry sap from the trees to his sugar shack boiler, pointing out what happened in the pre-dawn windstorm of July 21.

A yellow maple uprooted here. A 100-foot-tall white spruce snapped in half over there. One giant basswood toppled and took down six good syrup-producing maples with it. Freshly cut limbs and twisted tree trunks were visible in every direction.

"There's another maple down,'' Rogotzke said, pointing out a 16-inch-diameter maple on the ground. The tree was probably 60 years old, felled in seconds during last summer's hurricane-force straight-line winds.

The single maple would have produced many gallons of sap each spring, boiled down to some perfect maple syrup.


"That's probably a quart of syrup lost to the storm right there,'' Rogotzke noted.

Rogotzke came home from commercial fishing in Alaska last July to find his Lakewood Township maple woods just north of Duluth in disarray. A neighbor had graciously cleared the long driveway of downed trees. And the buildings and expensive equipment inside were mostly spared from damage. But hundreds of trees lay strewn about, like thousands of other landowners experienced in the yards and woodlots across the region.

Not only did he lose good sap-producing maples. But Rogotzke also lost hundreds of feet of plastic tubing as the trees fell. Some tubes he salvaged and spliced. But he still had to buy and re-string "a couple miles of new tubing" out of the 50 miles or so of the blue plastic line that criss-cross the property.

Last year Rogotzke's Simple Gifts operation tapped 5,000 maple trees. After the storm "that's probably down to 4,500, maybe a little more."

That will cut into production this spring, as winter finally lets loose its grip and the sap starts to run. In a good year, pre-storm, Simple Gifts would end up with 1,000 gallons or so of maple syrup to sell. They hit 1,300 gallons last year, a record in their 15 years of operation. With fewer trees tapped it's unlikely to get that high anytime soon.

Rogotzke said he never thought about walking away or even taking a year off, despite the mess left behind by the storm. Instead, he dug in and went to work, joined by his brother, nephews, his dad, many friends and others who came to help.

"Instead of being this scourge, this devastating thing, it created community here. I had a lot of help," Rogotzke said.

The crews went through a lot of chainsaw blades and a lot of gasoline.


"We had meals together out in the yard and laughed and it turned out to be pretty good,'' he said. "It was perfect weather to cut wood into November."

Roger Rogotzke, Dave's older brother, brought their dad and his son up from southern Minnesota to help cut the wind-damaged trees. He got a bloody nose out of the effort.

"I'm usually pretty careful. I've been doing this a long time. But one limb came up and smacked me in the nose and mouth. ... I thought I was dead there for a second," Roger Rogotzke said. But there was no lasting damage.

The sawyers moved quickly through the downed wood, trying to free up the tangle of plastic sap tubing.

"We had two guys cutting and two guys pulling brush out of the way and we went pretty fast,'' he said. "It was a mess. ... But Dave had prepared us mentally for what we were getting into."

Some of the same folks will come together this spring to help keep the system bringing sap from the trees into the sugar shack where the excess water is boiled off and pure maple syrup is made, like it has been for millennia - only now in gleaming, stainless steel tanks.

Every day now when the temperature rises and falls across the 32 degree mark, Dave Rogotzke's maple trees will push sap down the lines and his family will make syrup.

This year's maple syrup season seemed ready for a near-record early start, with sap running and syrup made at Valentine's day. But then the ever-fickle Northland weather turned cold, and the trees mostly took a few weeks off from producing sap.


Now, highs in the 40s and lows in the upper 20s should keep maple syrup operations across the Northland bustling with activity into April, until it gets too warm.

"It takes the trees a few days to warm up from these long cold spells," Dave Rogotzke said. "Every year is different."

Rogotzke has a way of seeing the good even among the bad, especially when it comes to nature. It could have been worse, he said. If it had been a pine plantation he likely would have lost most of his stock. Maples, it turns out, are pretty resilient to wind.

"We lost these nice big trees. But in about 30 years they will become part of the dirt, part of the cycle. ... And look, right next to it, there's a little tree ready to take its place,'' Rogotzke said, grabbing a two-inch diameter maple sapling and sizing it up.

It won't happen fast - his trees grow less than a half-inch in diameter every three years - but the new maples will now grab more sunlight in a thinner, more open forest and start to grow a little faster.

"In about 30 years or so," Rogotzke said with a smile, "this little guy will make a quart of syrup."


About maple syrup


  • The Minnesota Maple Syrup Producers Association now has more than 140 members statewide, each tapping between 20 and 25,000 trees, but there are likely hundreds of other hobbyists who also produce syrup for their own use or sale. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the state had about 76,000 trees tapped last year and produced 14,000 gallons of finished syrup.
  • Pure maple syrup is made in only 19 states in the U.S. and three provinces in Canada. Minnesota is the state fartherst to the north and west that produces maple syrup.
  • Maple syrup is made in the spring, when temperatures get below freezing at night and above freezing during the day, causing sap to flow through the tree. In Northeastern Minnesota the season usually falls between mid-March and late April.
  • It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup, depending on sugar content. Each tree can yield 10-12 gallons of sap during a season, which boils down to about one quart of finished syrup.
  • Nothing is added to the sap, only the water is evaporated to make syrup.
  • Maple trees are usually tapped beginning at 30 to 50 years of age. Each tree can support between one and three taps, depending on its trunk diameter.
  • The sugar maple is the symbol of Canada and is depicted on the nation's flag, but it's also the official state tree of Wisconsin, New York and Vermont.
  • Wisconsin ranks 10th in U.S. maple syrup commercial production; Minnesota doesn't make the top-10 list. Vermont leads the U.S. with about 1.3 million gallons of syrup produced (2013) but Quebec, at more than 7 million gallons of syrup, produces more than any U.S. state.
  • U.S. maple syrup production totaled 4.21 million gallons in 2016, up 23 percent from the previous year. The number of taps hit 12.6 million in 2016, up 5 percent from the 2015 total. Yield per tap was 0.335 gallon, up 17 percent from the previous season's yield.

SOURCES: U.S.D.A.; Minnesota Maple Syrup Producers Association

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