The owners of Currey Farms are keeping a century-old tradition alive by tapping maple trees on the family farm in Charlevoix to create delicious Northern Michigan maple syrup. Read on to find out what’s it like to produce one of the state’s sweetest products (and enjoy maple syrup recipes, too!).
Art and Jan Currey, owners of Currey Farms Pure Maple Syrup, have begun their 16th year of producing one of the state’s sweetest products on their 320-acre farm in Charlevoix. Following four generations of syrup makers, Art proudly carries on his family’s long-standing tradition of syrup making, which his grandfather started on the same land in the early 1900s. Today, Art and Jan produce about 4,000 gallons of syrup from their 8,000 taps each year, placing them in the top 20 of the roughly 500 commercial maple syrup producers in Michigan. We caught up with Jan before this year’s tapping season to hear about what it takes to make it in the maple syrup industry.
Featured in the February 2021 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Subscribe.
The Currey family has been tapping maple trees in Northern Michigan since the early 1900s. Why you were interested in continuing that tradition?
Our family has always been connected to farming in some way. Long ago, Art’s great-grandfathers made maple syrup because it provided a bit of extra income for their farms during the spring, a time in Michigan when fields were too wet to plow for new crops, and equipment repairs had been made during the blustery winter months. It also provided a sugar source for the family. Our primary reason for continuing to make syrup has been to carry on this agricultural tradition. We want to honor his grandparents’ legacy and hand it on to the next generation. So many things in this world have changed, but this is one piece of agriculture that has remained basically the same: tap maple trees in the spring and make syrup as the weather warms.
How did you and Art come to run Currey Farms?
Art retired from his veterinary career in Fowlerville in 2005. Prior to his retirement, we lived there and raised our family, making syrup each year by taking two weeks of vacation time from our jobs to travel to the Currey family farm in Charlevoix. Hoping for the right weather, we made whatever syrup we could during that time. We also tapped 10 maple trees in our yard at home and had a stove set up outside our back door. We boiled the sap in a stainless steel pan, and finished it on our kitchen stove inside. We always made about 10 gallons a year to share with neighbors and friends. Our boys, Rob and Jon (now in their late 30s), helped Art drill tap-holes into trees starting when they were 3 and 4. I helped them collect sap buckets from the yard and transport them to our back door in their Radio Flyer wagon.
Fast-forward to the year Art retired. It had always been his dream to continue and expand the maple syrup operation on the Currey family farm in Charlevoix. It hadn’t been in large-scale use since his dad passed away in 1975, so there was much work to be done. First, we determined where it would be best to lay out the sap lines in the 30 acres of maple woods. It was a full-time job for Art to draw from the example and knowledge of his dad and grandparents and combine it with the newer technology available to build a system that would work. He, Rob and Jon gave it their all for seven months and finished the last detail as the sap began to run in the spring of 2006. With 3,500 taps inserted, 10 miles of tubing installed and equipment set up, the commercial operation began.
What do you think would surprise people about maple syrup tapping season?
How much time and work it takes just to tap. Even though the production season is every spring, there’s work to be done all year round in order to be prepared for the intense schedule we jump into once the temps warm above freezing (but still go below at night). Prep for tapping actually starts in the fall. Art gets his exercise by walking through the woods, picking up all the dead trees that have blown over during summer storms and are laying on top of the sap lines. He also looks for breaks in the sap line connections, and repairs as many of the problem areas as he can see. This continues until the first snowfall, and then the woods are left on their own to endure the winter months. In the spring when the weather report tells us the season is about to begin, our team of helpers heads to the woods again. Drilling new holes each year for our 8,000 taps takes six people five days. Since our syrup operation relies on gravity to function best, the tappers have to climb up and down hills, often in the midst of inclement conditions—think deep snow drifts, very cold temps, sleet, rain and thundersnow.
How do weather conditions impact each spring’s sap harvest?
Making syrup during spring days in Northern Michigan is a totally weather-dependent process. Some years, the conditions are only optimal for 10 days, and during others, we can make syrup for six weeks. There is no “normal,” but generally, we tap our trees in late February, hope to start making it in early March, and if all goes well, keep making it until mid-April. Since we have no control over nature, it varies from year to year! The perfect day is sunny with little or no wind, starting at 28 degrees in the morning, going to 40 degrees by 10 a.m. and staying there until temps fall again that night. There are only about 2-5 days like this during a six-week season! One to two degrees of temperature variation can make it a better or worse day. The sap may run from the trees for only a few hours, or not at all. If it rains, it could run continuously for 36 hours. If we have a late winter blizzard, it might not run for 3-4 days. The weather app on our phones and the weather reports on TV become our compass, and we check them continuously. Between late February and mid-April, we may lose track of what makes news headlines, but we can always tell you what the weather forecast looks like for the next few hours!
How do you achieve different flavors/grades of maple syrup?
Whether the season is short or long, it’s interesting to see how syrup changes in color and flavor as days go by. The international maple industry has created different “grades” of syrup, so that customers can know what to expect when they buy some. The grades are defined by color and flavor. Golden/Delicate is usually made at the beginning of the season, followed (at no predictable time) by Amber/Rich, then by Dark/Robust and finally by Very Dark/Strong. Eventually, sap stops flowing from the trees, as if we turned off a faucet. It happens when it stops freezing at night. The days are most likely warmer, all snow on the ground has melted, and buds are starting to appear on the trees.
Why the change in color and flavor? Part of it is that during winter dormancy, the starch is stored within the tree, waiting to be converted to sugar that the tree uses for leaves to form in the spring. As winter ends, there’s a lot of starch stored. The first sap gathered has the highest natural sugar content it will have all season. As spring continues to bring the trees back to life, the sugar content of the sap decreases because the trees are using. By the time the last sap flows, there is a much lower sugar content. Boiling sap into syrup involves getting rid of the water in the sap. When there is more sugar, there is less water, and it doesn’t take as long to convert sap into syrup. It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup at this point. By the end of the season, it takes much longer to evaporate the water, so the sap needs to be cooked more. We might have to cook down 70 gallons of sap to make a gallon at that point. Cooking sugar results in caramelization, which yields various shades of brown color. The longer sugar is cooked, the darker it gets.
As for flavor, the first sap yields Golden/Delicate syrup, which has a delicately sweet flavor with a hint of maple. This is a favorite poured over vanilla or butter pecan ice cream, and also on hot biscuits or cornbread, or to make maple vinaigrette salad dressing (see recipe below). Amber/Rich syrup is equal in sweetness and maple and is most often used on breakfast foods, to sweeten coffee or tea, or to make granola. Dark/Robust is less sweet, but has more bold maple flavor. It’s delicious as a glaze for pork, ham or salmon. It can make a healthy breakfast when mixed with plain yogurt, fresh fruit and nuts. It’s also a favorite for baking. Finally, Very Dark/ Strong isn’t very sweet at all, but yields the strongest maple flavor possible. So strong, that people who buy it most often use it to cook with.
What’s the most rewarding part of tapping season?
No matter what the obstacles or challenges of tapping time, the best part of it is having our core group of helpers gather again. It’s like a reunion of old friends, former teammates or family. Everyone is excited and enthusiastic in anticipation of being able to make syrup again for another year! And when all 8,000 tap holes have been drilled into the trees, the spiles (spigots) lightly hammered in, and the tubing connected, there’s a feeling of “well done” that fills the air.
What’s on the horizon for Currey Farms?
The byline of Art’s personal emails is: “My goal in life is to tap more trees and make more syrup.” He feels extremely blessed to be able to continue to do this as he enters his 70th year. I know it’s what keeps him going and makes him happiest. There are plenty of trees in the maple woods on the farm that can be tapped in the future. So, Art’s plan is to keep making syrup, and my plan is to keep running the business. To help, Art has brought in a younger partner who works full time during the production season. He not only helps tap, manage the woods and produce the syrup, but also has implemented some really helpful changes in technology and efficiency. My niece and husband took over the website, shipping of retail orders and social media marketing in the spring of 2020. As the years go by, it may take a few more people to keep things going, but we have no plans to stop making maple syrup!
For more information, visit the Currey Farms Pure Maple Syrup website or call 616.777.7825.
Maple Balsamic Vinaigrette Salad Dressing
- 1 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
- 1/4 cup Currey Farms pure maple syrup
- 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
- Salt and pepper to taste
Place vinegar, maple syrup, Dijon mustard, salt and pepper into a blender and pulse to combine. Then blend in a steady stream of olive oil. Refrigerate unused portion. Stir well before use.
- 6 cups old fashioned oats (not instant)
- 1 cup unsweetened coconut flakes
- 1 cup hulled raw pumpkin seeds
- 1 cup hulled raw sunflower seeds
- 2 cups pecans, almonds or walnuts, coarsely chopped
- Chia, flax and sesame seeds to taste
- 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 3/4 cup dark/robust or amber/rich Currey Farms pure maple syrup
- 1 teaspoon vanilla (optional)
- 1 teaspoon coarse salt
Mix ingredients together, and spread mixture evenly onto two rimmed cookie sheets lined with parchment paper. Bake for about 45 minutes total, stirring every 15 minutes. Watch carefully after 30 minutes—the granola is done when it’s evenly toasted and slightly darkened. (Undercooking means it won’t be crunchy. Overcooking can cause burning.) Remove from the oven and stir one last time. Slide the parchment paper with granola off the pans and let it cool completely. Store in a tightly sealed container in a cool place (but not the refrigerator). The granola will keep for up to a month.
Read about the Curry Farm and find more Northern Michigan local food ideas in the February 2021 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s magazine below; or subscribe and get Traverse delivered to your door each month.