The closest Christi Herrema Petersen ’91 had ever come to authentic maple syrup was in a souvenir bottle bought on a family vacation to Vermont when she was a kid. “I don’t even like pancakes,” she said.
Thus when her husband, Todd, suggested the couple purchase 80 acres of land in northern Michigan that happened to include a 20-plus-acre stand of mature maple trees, it never occurred to Christi that they had a family business in the making.
Frankly, it never occurred to Todd either.
“He loves to hunt, so he’s always looking for land,” said Christi. “Someone brought the piece of land to him before it was even on the market. He came home and said to me, ‘You’re going to kill me, but… .’”
Christi had been hoping to stay put with their four children in their previous home, several miles from this property in Petoskey. “Todd works in construction, so he’s always building and we’re always moving. I was hoping to stay where we were for 10 years or so.”
It was 2008, the housing market was falling and prices were at record lows. “We picked the absolute worst time in the history of the planet to sell our house and cottage and move here,” said Todd. “After I took Christi to see the property, we prayed about it, and we both felt God had a purpose for this land; we just had no idea what it was.”
“We thought maybe it was a subdivision or a Bible camp or a pastors’ retreat,” continued Christi. “We were trying to seek out what God had in mind.”
In the meantime the couple built a house, moved in and started tapping trees with the kids for fun. “We put a turkey roaster [to heat the sap] on the back deck and started it up,” said Christi.
“What we made wasn’t even close to syrup that first year,” said Todd. “We laugh now.”
They chuckle because their little backyard hobby has grown into a business accounting for one-third to one-half of the family’s income.
Last year Maple Moon Family Sugary produced 1,650 gallons of the sweet liquid, a boon from the 3,500 taps, considering a 40 percent yield is deemed a success.
Many incremental steps in a short time occurred in between to get production to that level, however.
It started when Todd went to purchase more propane for the family’s turkey roaster. “There was an older woman there also getting propane. We started chatting in the parking lot. I told her I was making maple syrup; she said, ‘I’m making it, too. I have a book about it in the car I can give you.’”
The book, Backyard Sugarin’, basically tells you “how to make maple syrup cheap with junk from the house,” said Todd.
At the time he was collecting stuff around the house to continue with the hobby, and Todd felt like he was being nudged to do something more. “I had the idea that something was supposed to happen here, I just didn’t know what it was, and the reason was I didn’t ask the question.
“My testimony is to see what God has done here. God blesses us with things, and what we forget to do is ask Him what we’re supposed to do with it. Believe me, He will show you if you ask,” he said.
As the Petersen family hobby grew, Todd and Christi were excited about being able to teach their kids through it. “It called for communication, cooperation, teamwork, integrity, resourcefulness,” said Christi. “Everyone knew we didn’t know what we were doing, and the kids saw us fail a lot.”
But they also saw the benefits. “I wanted the kids to see that you can do anything you want to do if you put your mind to it,” said Todd.
Still, Todd and Christi struggled with the idea of a large investment in the production. “One day as I was walking down our driveway, I just said to God, ‘Maple syrup, really?’” said Todd. “I had my answer.”
That was August of 2011. With winter in northern Michigan quickly approaching, the Petersen family had to act quickly to avoid missing out on the next season of syrup.
With help from friends, they built the sugarhouse (where all of the production equipment is located), purchased and installed tanks and processing equipment, drilled taps, ran mainline tubing and took a “triple-paced crash course chemistry class on maple syrup.”
“What happened in the amount of time with the resources we had was incredible, almost unachievable,” said Todd. “It was amazing perfect timing; it’s what He’s best known for.”
Everything was ready by Feb. 15, 2012. “The equipment was hooked up, and we didn’t know what we were doing,” said Christi. “The lines were ready, but we hadn’t done any testing. We went live with syrup with no testing.”
Because the window of opportunity for syrup is so short, the season is extremely stressful and busy. “No other agricultural endeavor has such a short season,” said Todd.
Maple syrup producers have from the time the sap starts flowing, after alternating freezing and thawing temperatures, until the trees first bud, which makes the sap bitter. This results in a three- to six-week harvest season. Sap needs to be processed into syrup within about three days, so harvesting and production occur simultaneously.
“That first year was mass chaos,” explained Christi. “We dumped 3,000 gallons of sap into the swamp by turning the wrong valve. That’s 150 gallons of syrup or about $10,000.
“We ended up with about 650 gallons that first year,” she said. “It was actually a blessing we had a short season—about three weeks. We figured it could only go up from there.”
After a record season of 1,650 gallons last year, the Petersens were hoping for something around average this year: 1,200 to 1,300 gallons.
Once production is completed, the family is busy marketing and selling their maple products, which include syrup, sugar, candy, root beer, a meat rub and ice cream.
Part of the marketing includes tours for tourists and locals, which Christi leads for both young and old alike. “Tours are my favorite thing to do,” she said. “I give them year round—every day in the summer. Every time I give a tour, I’m using the skills I learned at Calvin.”
In fact, Petersen earned a teaching degree from Calvin and taught at Cutlerville (Mich.) Christian for four years before moving north. “The testament that this is for Calvin is the well-rounded education that you receive,” she said. “It’s possible to go in other directions than what you went to school for.”
Petersen said she also took away a sense of the value in conveying beliefs to the next generation. “What Calvin did for me was to help me realize the importance of sharing from generation to generation. I’ve always loved the outdoors and wanted to preserve it; that’s a part of who I am. But the desire to take the gifts and resources we’ve been given and pass them on to the next generation—that’s what Calvin helped me realize. And not just to share the gifts, but to share the belief in the God who provides them.”
And the Petersens believe they are being called to do even more.
“What’s intriguing about all of this from a business standpoint is how can God use us? Is it just to make syrup?” said Todd.
The Petersens think the answer to that is no. As they’ve gotten more involved, they have become advocates for the industry in the state of Michigan.
“Michigan is not known for making maple syrup,” said Todd. “Yet, Michigan has more potential sugar maple taps than any other state.”
It’s Quebec that averages 80 percent of the world’s maple syrup. Vermont accounts for another 15 percent, leaving 5 percent for the other states in the midsection of the country where sugar maples grow.
The U.S. imports four times more syrup than it produces, and Michigan utilizes less than two-tenths of a percent of its potential maple taps.
“Michigan has the ability to produce six times as much as Quebec,” said Todd. “We just need to get people excited about the possibilities. Maple trees are everywhere in Michigan, and the market is growing.”
That’s why Todd, together with some other maple farmers, have formed the Commercial Maple Syrup Producers of Michigan Association, aimed at growing the commercial business in Michigan. “Our goal is to become the world leader in maple syrup production.”
They have received a grant from the Michigan Department of Agricultural and Rural Development to develop a strategic growth initiative. “Our plan would be to increase production for the state from our current 250,000 gallons to 80 million gallons,” he said.
The new U.S. Farm Bill, passed in January, includes funding for agricultural development. “We, without any question, have more opportunity to do good with funds from that farm bill than any other state,” said Todd. He and the rest of the association have been working to educate senators and the governor about the industry for this reason.
“Nobody understands it as a business in Michigan,” he said. “The government doesn’t, banks don’t, regulatory agencies don’t. People are out of sync with the potential. I think that what we have today in Michigan could have the same economic impact as the wine industry has had on Michigan. No one thought you could grow grapes on this peninsula in Michigan; people thought they were crazy.
“The facts are the facts,” he said, “and we already have the trees.”
And while Maple Moon would like to be one of the commercial enterprises producing more syrup and diversifying into more maple products, one aspect has to stay the same for Christi. “There still has to be some fun to it,” she said. “Cleaning up at midnight is hard, but most of the time it’s still fun and it’s still miraculous to me. How could you not believe in a Creator when you see the intricacies in what He’s made and how He provides. It’s truly amazing.”
Lynn Rosendale is managing editor of Spark.