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Temperature swings sweeten Funks Grove syrup season

March 26, 2018

SHIRLEY, Ill. (AP) — The crazy temperature fluctuations this year didn’t just create a bumper crop of potholes; they also created excellent conditions for making maple syrup in Central Illinois.

Mike Funk, co-owner of Funks Grove Pure Maple Sirup, said the up-and-down temperatures are what they want.

“The back and forth means it’s been a longer season for us,” he said. “The last three years, it’s been getting warmer earlier.”

Temperatures in the upper 20s at night and 40s during the day create the best conditions for sap to flow, said Funk. If it’s too cold, the sap won’t flow, and an extended period in the mid-50s or above also will stop the flow.

This year, the family-owned operation was able to start the syrup-making process in January.

On Thursday, Funk and his neighbor, Mike Olson, were busy boiling sap in the large evaporator, which emitted sweet-smelling steam. But Funk didn’t expect the boiling would continue much longer.

“The tap holes are sealing up,” he explained.

Just as he was saying the end of the sap run was near, a bee flew into the “sugar house” through an open door.

“Honeybee,” said Funk. “Sure sign it’s over.”

The Funk family has been making maple syrup — or sirup, the old-style spelling they prefer — since the 1820s, with the commercial operation starting in 1891. The modern era opened in the 1940s, with Mike Funk’s father, Stephen, taking over after returning from military service in 1946.

Collecting 100,000 gallons of sap is their goal each year. This year, the business, which taps about 3,500 maple trees, hit that mark on March 5.

“That’s kind of the magic number,” he said of the 100,000-gallon goal.

It takes about 50 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup. In an average year, the business makes 2,000 gallons of syrup, according to Funk.

Of course, there are downsides to a longer season.

“About a month ago, I loved to boil sap,” kidded Olson, as he cleaned out the boiling pan and changed some filters.

But Olson, who farms corn and soybeans the rest of the year, doesn’t really mind.

“I enjoy it,” he said. “I grew up with this all my life. As a kid, I collected the buckets.”

Ah, the buckets.

Although a significant number of the 3,500 trees they tap are connected to hoses that carry water-like sap into large collection tanks, they still use buckets to collect sap, too.

“People like to see the buckets,” said Funk. “It’s traditional.”

Syrup-making might be wrapping up, but business is just getting started, said Funk’s wife, Debby.

They get a lot of local business during the boiling season, especially from local residents or people who used to live in the area, she said. The local customers tend to buy the larger containers, which are as much as a half gallon. By early summer, the smaller containers, 1.36 ounces and 3.4 ounces, are more popular.

“We get a lot of Route 66 travelers from all over the world,” she said. The shop is located at 5157 Old Route 66 Road, Shirley.

They also sell maple cream and maple candy, she said.

A new addition is pancake mix, which uses maple sugar from their operation and organic wheat grown by the Funks’ children.

Product availability lessens by mid-summer, she said, but the shop also sells various Route 66 memorabilia.

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Source: The (Bloomington) Pantagraph

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