By Darren Lum
There’s a certain romantic quality to the experience behind the traditional way of maple syrup production.
It includes tromping through the woods with snowshoes, hanging the buckets and inserting the spiles in trees, then repeat the walk to return to collect the litres of sap from each, pouring into pans and boiling it with the wood you cut from the trees on the property to fuel the fire needed to boil, eventually reducing the sap down to prepare before filtering into maple syrup.
Canada is known throughout the world for its maple syrup (it’s a multi-million dollar industry) and although the bulk of it all comes from Quebec, there are operations of all sizes with differing methods here in the Highlands.
While some will employ contemporary methods with lines, or reverse osmosis machines to separate pure water from the raw sap, there are others that use old fashioned methods of collecting sap with buckets from tapped trees and use the naked eye for qualities consistent with the desired viscosity.
Haliburton retired resident Andy Salvatori said he started close to 25 years ago because his 40-acre property has a lot of maple trees and he wanted to do something with his young children.
“It was always fun for them. It gets them outside and enjoying nature,” he said. “They hated collecting. They liked eating it. Didn’t like making it.”
Although his children are all grown now, he continues to harvest sap to make syrup.
“I don’t know. It’s a thing that happens every March. Take the stuff out of the barn. Because we eat a lot of it. That’s why we do it. We eat a lot of it. We pretty well eat it every day,” he said.
It goes into a range of things from salad dressing, oatmeal, yogurt to baking and cooking.
He said he loves the taste and will even eat it out of a bowl with a spoon.
“I probably shouldn’t do too much of that. I like dipping bread in it when it has butter on it. Probably worst thing you can do. High in sugar and high in fat.”
From his perspective, the understanding is that there is a litre of syrup per tree, he said.
He admits he doesn’t have the most efficient of maple syrup enterprises, but it works for him and his small operation, which includes storing sap in barrels that can be susceptible to freezing, if he isn’t cognizant of the temperature, 40 taps and buckets for collecting and an unsheltered area where the boiling takes place.
This operation produces more than enough for his family and friends. He said he could skip a year and still have enough left over.
For producers like Salvatori or for significant producers exponentially larger than him, the convention of understanding among maple syrup producers is that for every litre of syrup it takes close to 40 litres of sap to produce.
The key thing to pay attention to is the weather forecasts, he said.
“Like last week it got really cold at night so if you collected sap and put it in a bucket outside it would have froze solid. That’s the danger when you start early,” he said.
The ideal conditions for sap to run are cold nights (below 0 Celsius) and warm above zero days.
Although he didn’t do this, his advice to beginners is to go see someone else doing it and learn from them. Otherwise start small. He recommends boiling outside rather than inside to avoid the challenges that come with boiling a high sugar content liquid. Since he doesn’t produce to sell, he picks and chooses when he goes out, selecting the most hospitable weather.
Salvatori really appreciates how the maple syrup production marks the transition of the season.
“It’s good to start and it’s good to finish. Because you know when you’re finished spring’s here, right? Snow is all gone and the leaves are going to be out soon,” he said.
Down the road, Walkers Haliburton Home Hardware co-owner Dale Walker said sales for maple syrup production products is up because of more producers, but wasn’t sure on specifics.
She said one of their most popular maple syrup production items right now is their beginner kit, which includes five spiles, five two gallon buckets and lids. The store also sells lines, paper filters, and white buckets, which are the most popular of all their offerings, she said.
Walker said they have sold out of some products, but that was because of a combination of factors from demand, delivery and supply chain.
This growth hasn’t changed their ordering practices, but it’s still early for the maple syrup season here, she said.
Maple syrup production products started to be sold at the store when it was bought by the Walkers a few years ago.
The store starting putting these products on the shelves around three weeks ago this year and they account for only around two per cent of their inventory during the year.
In West Guilford maple syrup producer Mervin Steckle said last week the sap had stopped running, indicating to him this won’t be a record season. However, he remains optimistic.
The self-employed 64-year-old with a family history in farming said he’s been making syrup for close to seven years, ever since he moved to the area with his wife. It made sense to make maple syrup because there were a lot of maple trees on the property and it was done by the last owner.
“We just decided we’d like to try something I’ve never done on my own before and … it would be a fun thing to do and we tapped a few trees. Every year we just been tapping a few more,” he said.
He started with 50 and is now up to 150 pails in an area less than two acres of densely populated forest. He laughs and said he doesn’t expect to expand due to “old age” and how he doesn’t want it to become a job.
“I still enjoy getting out in the bush and in the spring it’s a nice thing to do. If I was 20 years younger, I would consider getting into it a little bigger. Not at this point,” he said.
He may not have all of the high tech equipment because of cost, but he makes it work.
Among the techniques includes seeing how the syrup drips off a ladle when raised. He repurposed an old tank into a stove where he boils his sap in stainless steel pans. He started with two and recently added another. He uses a thermometer to evaluate the temperature and takes taste samples to evaluate its quality.
“For the scale we’re operating it’s really not viable to get too fancy. That’s another reason I don’t want to expand too much because then you have to get into bigger evaporators and what not and then you end up with a huge investment, then you’re working to pay that back. The way we’re doing it right now, yeah, we spend a little bit in buckets and what not, [but] it’s not a huge expense and we’re having fun with it,” he said.
Last year he said the 90 litres of syrup produced was triple compared to the first year.
He started tapping on March 9 and moved on to boiling by March 18.
“It’s going to be a different season this year. We’ve had a couple good runs, but now it’s warmed up so quickly right now the trees have quit running again. I’m hoping we get some cooler weather and some frost at night to bring it on again, but I don’t think we’re going to have a record crop this year from the looks of it. It’s a little bit early to tell yet,” he said.
In a conversation with a friend from southwestern Ontario, Steckle was told they were finished their season and only managed half of their typical yield.
The syrup production isn’t just by his own hands, as a few neighbours have helped, including his wife, Angie. Some of the challenges, besides the unpredictability of the weather, includes the deep snow that can be upwards of three feet deep, which makes hanging the buckets and collecting difficult.
He enjoys his syrup in his tea in lieu of sugar while his wife will use to baste roasts.
His advice to new syrup producers is to start small, experiment and to have fun with it.
“It’s one of those things you kind of have to learn as you go and you have to do it, really, to gain experience,” he said.
He said typically the season is about two weeks later than what happens for producers in the south, who he knows are done already. Sometimes the season here, he said, will last into the second week of April. At this point in the season, Steckle said he is at about a third of what he has typically collected.
With cooler temperatures coming, he believes there is potential to make up for the period of warm weather that stopped the sap from running.
“I think the potential is still there for a decent season. Not every year is going to be a record breaker, but it’s always nice when you go to the effort of setting up to have something for your effort anyway,” he said.