Maggie James left comforts her daughter three-year-old Ana while five-year-old son Tupper directs questions about the maple syrup to his father Garrett in the sugar shack at Cossette's Maple Syrup in Haliburton. Started in 1987 by Rene Cossette Cossette's will continue with the James family who are beef pork and chicken farmers looking to expand their production. /DARREN LUM Staff

COVID-19 can’t stop maple syrup production

By Darren Lum

It takes 40 litres of sap to make one litre of syrup and the ideal conditions for high yields is cold nights and warm days. Haliburton County has seen its fair share of such weather and area producers have been the beneficiaries of strong sap flow.

Seeing the snow on their property is a good sign for producers. Once it melts the season is pretty much finished as trees begin to show buds.

In Minden Neil Campbell of Sapsucker Ridge described maple syrup production as being "like playing the lottery."

After close to two decades he is finishing his last year of maple syrup production using the old school method of collecting with 196 buckets.

He was expecting to finish with 221 litres of syrup or a little more than a litre per bucket and considered this the third consecutive "pretty good year" for his pre-sold Brown Dog Pure Maple Syrup.

"Getting that much syrup from 196 taps is more a matter of good luck than good management. This would give me the third good year in a row after some struggles during the 18 years I have been making syrup. … this will be the last year for Brown Dog; it'll be good to leave on a sweet note if it turns out that way" he wrote in a message to his customers.

The reason Campbell is hanging up his spigot is he'll be turning 77 this April and said he decided two years ago he couldn't cut wood for his rustic home in the woods and for his evaporator anymore.

North on Highway 35 retired couple Rick and Wendy Wood were expecting a good year after experiencing a "big run" of 3000 litres of sap collected in the first few weeks at their Colour of Wood property.

Five-year-old Tupper James and his father Garrett walk down the road to check the lines at the Cossette's Maple Syrup property in Haliburton.

This year they were seeing greater efficiency harvesting syrup by employing a reverse osmosis system which draws water from the sap they collect from their 705 taps via lines. Taking water out from the sap means less boiling so less wood is needed. The only downside Rick said is the four-hour cleanup of the system after each use.

At their hilly property the two tanks of sap outside the sugar shack have a definitive difference.

The tank collecting the south-facing trees usually contains double the volume as the north.

Rick said this is owed to the greater sun exposure which brings more warmth and helps the sap flow from the trees and through the lines. He's hopeful this year's yield will be 800 litres of syrup which is a little more than a litre per tap.

Over in West Guilford Wayne Krangle said he is seeing a 15 per cent increase from his average yield of the past 10 years. Krangle has 260 trees tapped and produces his Syrup for Soldiers to benefit the Wounded Warriors fund which supports Canadian soldiers and their families and emergency personnel dealing with mental health issues such as PTSD.

At Cossette's Maple Syrup in Haliburton a new family is taking the reins for the first time this year.

Owned and operated by the young farming family of Garrett and Maggie James both 27-years-old son Tupper 5 and daughter Ana 3.

This is their second year of operation but their first on their own after completing the transition phase with former owners Rene and Carole Cossette who started the operation in 1987.

"This is just another avenue to be self-sustaining and make a little more money. We like it. We like anything outdoors" Maggie said.

Her husband she said started making syrup as a kid in the Lindsay area where they both grew up.

Farming for liquid gold is a sweet passion as everyone in the family loves to eat maple syrup even if the couple can't agree on amber versus dark.

Garrett helped Rene for the past several years before completing the transition this year. Rene is originally from Quebec where they produce the most maple syrup in the world.

Above Cossette's Maple Syrup's Garrett James adds wood to keep the sap boiling as his three-year-old daughter Ana looks on inside the sugar shack.

The family is living on the lower floor of the home on the property but will be completing their full move from their Loon Lake farm to live and operate a farm on the Hilltop Road property later this year.

Garrett said he expects an above average yield this season from their 1800 taps.

Although the couple has filtered more sand than other years they don't mind because they use it to feed their pigs who love the sweet sediment. (All of those interviewed for this story noticed a much greater volume of sand or nutrients that needed to be filtered from the sap. Some up to 50 per cent more. No one had a theory as to why.)

There is already a plan to continue to expand slowly towards maximizing the maple syrup potential for upwards of 5000 taps for the 101-acre property. The couple is open to keeping the business going for a long time and have a willing helper in their son who has demonstrated an aptitude for the work and is well-versed in production practices.

In Wilberforce Esson Creek Maple's Josh Bramham said "it's been a good year" for the mainly amber coloured syrup he and his family work to produce. He expects this season to be their best of the past four years of operation which can be in part credited to adding more taps – from 1730 to 1984 this year – as well as the ideal weather conditions.

The Bramhams' first tap was on Feb. 6 which was part of a plan to be prepared for their first run of sap. Their first boil was on March 10. His hope is to continue until the end of April at the Essonville Line property.

Although the standard of producing one litre of syrup per tree applied to farms without a vacuum system he said to truly maximize the return at Esson Creek Maple is to reach 1.5 litres of syrup per tree. This year they are averaging 1.8 litres per tree. If weather conditions continue for this week he expects to match what they've averaged so far.

COVID-19 is not affecting their production but may hurt sales in the coming year.

Bramham said he's concerned about the 15 per cent of sales that won't be made through tours and visits at their shack if they must be closed to the public. Summer sales at farmers' markets could be hampered if social gathering restrictions continue this summer. Commercial sales are an option they've considered but if other producers do the same there may be more supply than demand and will lower the market price.

Over on Drag Lake Bill Beatty keeps doing what he has done for 40 years and cannot understand why anybody could be bored while self-isolating.

"I don't know why anybody gets bored with being isolated because all you got to do is go out and gather the sap and bring it in and boil it. Then you get to it bottle it and label it. So how can you get bored?î he said.

Late last week he was little more than halfway through his season of collection of sap from his 229 taps at Beatty's Sugar Bush starting his first tap the second week of March.

"As far as we're concerned it's coming along great" he said.

Other producers he knows have expressed the same optimism for a strong year.

There hasn't been a large run of sap yet at his property and he didn't have a prediction for the rest of the season citing the unusual winter weather and Mother Nature. The litre of syrup per tree standard is beyond what he has ever collected. His yield is closer to three-quarters of a litre per tap.

Beatty who had his daughter help with bottling this year doesn't have any plans to quit despite slowing down in the bush.

"I keep saying I'm going to quit when I'm 90 but then when I'm 90 I may take a look at it and say 'let's do it another year'" he said.