Story and photos by Betsy Lehndorff, The Alpena News
LINCOLN - Life for Alcona High School senior Hannah Mikazes is sweet this time of year. Despite her school's financial woes and winter's dreary grip, Mikazes dolls herself up in insulated overalls and pink gloves. Then she and other students head for a grove of trees on school grounds. "I get a lot of funky looks," she said of her fashion getup. "But, hey, I'm warm." Her goal isn't to play hooky. Instead, she and the others are tapping the last of 200 maple trees. The wind is bone-chilling. But when the temperature warms up a few weeks later, a blue plastic bag on each tap will begin to swell, drop by drop, with liquid. Later, the bags and buckets will be emptied into a huge tank truck, and the liquid will be driven over to her school’s sugar shack tucked back behind the elementary school.
Using biodiesel fuel students made from used cooking fats, she and the others will boil the sap down into a red-gold maple syrup known for its delicate, toasted flavor.
"It's something that a lot of kids never experience," Mikazes said. "Most of them think maple syrup, like milk, comes from the store. They don't realize all of the work that goes into something like this."
Larry Haigh, president of the Michigan Maple Syrup Association, said the program at Alcona Community Schools is relatively rare and wishes other educators would copy it, because it provides a wealth of experiences to students. It also can be a money maker for landowners. Premium grades in Michigan sell for $50 to $60 a gallon, generating $5 million to $7 million a year, he said.
Backed by the Alcona chapter of the FFA, the school program also is profitable, agriscrence teacher Brian Matchett said. "We're the only school in the state that taps trees on school property," Matchett said. Since its launch seven years ago, the program has accumulated $100,000 worth of equipment and facilities, all paid for. Even grant writing has been a part of the pro gram's curriculum, Matchett said. In 2006, ascribing students wrote and won a $43,000 grant for the sugar house. The school also contributed, and locals in the community provided their labor to build it. This year, students bought a used maintenance truck for $1,000. They acquired two 550-gallon sap collection tanks, and with the help of volunteers fitted the truck up.
However, the picture isn't as bright for the school district. In the same seven years, its enrollment has declined, due to the hard hit economy in this northeast quadrant of the state. Property taxes and state funding also have dropped, leaving the district to operate with an even tighter budget.
This hasn’t stopped the students or squashed their enthusiasm. They have put 900 taps into trees, including groves of maples at other sites, Matchett said, and could gross as much as $10,000 this year. After expenses are paid, a portion of the profit goes back to the local FFA Alcona chapter. The rest is reinvested in the business. "Every year we put $1,000 to $3,000 into new equipment to stay up with advances in the industry," Matchett said.
Unlike the school district, their program's success isn't affected by Lansing politics. But it is swayed by the weather. Last year at this time, temperatures soared into the 70s, and high school students were only able to make 110 gallons of syrup. This year’s crop could be slowed by cold, he said. The sap flows only when days are warm and nights are freezing. "You know the weather," he said. Regardless, the school has a loyal following and today the campus is expecting 600 to 650 people for its 5th Annual Maple Syrup Celebration Day from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. "We'll have syrup one way or another," Matchett said.
The sugar house may not be boiling sap today, but so far the students have made I0 gallons of syrup for the breakfast. And if the weather warms up for a few hours they could collect hundreds of gallons of sap today, because of so many taps, he said.
Today's event is important for another reason: it is the last time Matchett and Mikazes will participate. In June, Matchett heads to a new job with Michigan State University in Traverse City. And this fall. Mik- azes begins her first year of college at Michigan State University in Lansing, specializing in agricultural science and natural resources.
"I've been raised my whole life around agriculture," Mikazes said, referring to the surrounding community where she lives. "Dave kind of pushed me toward it. It's something I have a passion for.
Although maple syrup is made in 12 states and four Canadian provinces, school programs are somewhat rare. Here are a few of them:
•LakeVille Middle School, Otisville
•Mason High School, Lansing
•Common Ground, a charter high school in New Haven, Conn.
•Verona-Verona- Sherrill High School, Verona, N.Y.
Betsy Lehndorff can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5693. Follow Betsy on Twitter @bl_alpenanews.