Summer is steaming up, but before you go thinking you want the cold back, here’s a little reminder of what February looked like this year.
Brrrr, just peaking at that picture should be enough to cool you right down. Despite the summer heat, I’m sure very few of us would wish to repeat those last, long cold months of 2014. Unless you’re a maple sirup producer that is, because if you’re a maple sirup producer, there’s nothing better than a long, cold spring to keep that tree sap flowing. And no one knows that better than Mike and Debbie Funk, the 5th generation farmers and maple sirup producers at Funk’s Grove, just off of Old Route 66 near Bloomington.
It all started way back in 1894 when Mike’s ancestor, Isaac Funk, settled on the 160 acres of timber that is now known as Funk’s Grove. In those days, Isaac and his family would tap the grove of native sugar maple trees and boil the sap into sirup and sugar. Isaac later went on to become a state Senator, leaving much of the day-to-day farming operation to his sons. In 1891, Isaac’s grandson, Arthur, opened up the first commercial sirup farm on Funk’s Grove, and later, in the 1920s, Arthur’s cousin Hazel was handed the reins to the operation. It was Hazel who, in her will, arranged for the timber and farmland to be protected by a trust, ensuring that future generations would continue to enjoy the “sweet stuff” produced in Funks Grove. It was also Hazel who wished that sirup be spelled with an “i”–a spelling that has been honored by the maple sirup producers of Funks Grove.
Today, it is Debbie and Mike Funk who continue the long-standing maple sirup tradition. Mike and Debbie have been producing maple sirup at Funk’s Grove ever since their marriage in 1974 when they entered in partnership with Mike’s father, Stephen Funk. When Stephen retired, Mike and Debbie took over the business and now have added partners of their own, their son Jonathon and nephew Sean, who will continue to keep Funk’s Grove a family tradition.
Every year, between mid-February and mid-March, the Funks drill about 6,500 taps into the surrounding sugar maple trees. According to the Funk’s Grove website, “During the winter, the sap is stored in a tree’s roots. Once the weather turns warmer, a freezing-thawing cycle begins in which temperatures rise above the freezing point during the day and drop below freezing at night. During this cycle, sap flows up to the tree’s branches during the day to nourish the developing leaf buds, then returns to the roots when the temperature drops at night. It is during this flow that sirup producers are able to capture the sap.”
Most trees at Funk’ s Grove have between 1 and 2 taps. It takes a sugar maple about 40 years to mature enough to be tapped, as it needs to be 14 inches in diameter. A second tap cannot be added until the tree grows to 20 inches in diameter. This insures that the tree will continue to grow and thrive. “There are usually no more than 2 taps per tree so that only a small percentage of sap is taken and it doesn’t shorten the life of the tree,” says Debbie, “I always compare it to donating blood; we can spare so much, and the trees can spare so much as well.”
Today about 3000 of the taps drip directly into a metal bucket, which is harvested in the good old-fashioned way, by hand, once it is full of sap, generally within 10-12 hours, and hauled to the sugar house to be boiled and filtered. The other 3500 taps are outfitted with blue tubing, an ingenious system that Mike has been perfecting over the years which allows the sap to flow directly from the tree to the sugarhouse. The blue tubing enables the Funks to tap even more trees than in the past as the tubing can be outfitted onto trees that are hard to reach in the manual method. It also prevents spoilage since the sap will never spend any time in the sun.
The sap, which Debbie explains looks like water and has a mildly sweet taste, must be boiled to concentrate the sweetness. “Depending on how sweet the sap is, it takes anywhere between 35 and 50 gallons of sap to make a gallon of sirup. As it is boiling, the heat caramelizes the sugar that is in the sap and it turns brown and gets thicker, sweeter. And then all we do is filter it and bottle it. So there is nothing added to it,” says Debbie. And that’s it, maple sirup: simple, pure and sweet.
Today, the Funks bottle about 1800 gallons of sirup a year, lthough this number always varies according to the weather. This year being unseasonably cold, the freeze-and-thaw cycle lasted even longer than normal, allowing for a bumper crop of 3000 gallons. “Our best year yet,” states Debbie happily. Once the sirup is harvested and bottled, Funk’s Grove opens to the public and will stay open until all of the sirup is sold, generally until August or September.
The best part about working at Funks’ Grove: “We get people from all over the world in here that are driving Route 66. Some days we’ll have five different countries represented in our sales room, so to me, that’s the best part, meeting people,” says Debbie.
Funk’s Grove just opened its doors for the 2014 season at the end of March, so stop by and say hi to Debbie and Mike and get yourself some fresh maple sirup.
Funks Grove Pure Maple Sirup
5257 Old Route 66
Shirley, Illinois 61722