Ferme et Forêt

Maple Sugaring in a Dangerous Time

This was our third spring making maple syrup under the shadow of Covid. March and April seem to be a favoured time for the coronavirus, too, with a spring wave becoming a new routine, but we had managed to avoid it for the first two seasons. Being incapacitated with Covid during the precious few weeks when the sap runs would be a sugaring catastrophe for us. This year, the pandemic floodwaters lapped right up to our doorstep, threatening to inundate our household. Did we succumb? Read on to find out…

The season started smoothly enough – not too much snow, and a good crust, made tapping the trees in February relatively easy. Tapping was completed by early March, but the sap didn’t start to run until mid-March, leaving a nice little break in between – a time to gather our strength, sleep extra long, and stockpile some meals in the freezer.

Our first boil came on St. Paddy’s day. Often there’s a spluttering start to the season, like a rough engine just getting going, as a tug-of-war ensues between winter and spring, with the trees briefly thawing, then freezing up for a few days at a time. But not this year. After our first boil, it was off to the races. We boiled for 11 days straight.

An early boil.

Actually, there was one day in that stretch where we would have liked to boil, but were prevented by an equipment breakdown. A machine called a filter press filters our syrup before bottling. An electric motor pumps the hot syrup through a series of filters, turning freshly made syrup cloudy with “sugar sand” (minerals that precipitate out of the sap as it boils) into crystal clear liquid amber. I switched on the press to filter the last syrup of the day one evening, but nothing happened. After some amateur electronic diagnostics, and calls to both my maple equipment dealer (Érablière du Ruisseau in Val-des-Monts) and our favourite electrician (Neil, at 819-664-3751), we determined that we needed a new motor.

Our partially disassembled filter press, showing the failed motor.

Thankfully, the maple industry, knowing the urgency of the situation, is good at rapidly shipping spare parts to its producers, and we had the new motor in 24 hours. I got it installed and we were back up and running the next day.

By that point we had a large backlog of sap in our nearly overflowing tanks. We lit the fire in our evaporator and didn’t stop boiling for another 15 and a half hours. At the end of the day we had produced 531 litres of syrup – blowing well past our old one-day record.

Buckets of syrup from our big day.

After another five days of boiling, a welcome break came in the form of a cold snap, as the late March temperature plunged below zero for four days and we all caught up on sleep, laundry, and dishes. Then it was on to part two of the season.

The second half was nearly as intense as the first; between April 1st and 15th, we boiled another 11 days. And unfortunately, our pump woes were not over. This time it was the gas powered pump we use to move sap from a smaller tank in the field up to our sugar shack. Like the syrup press, it simply decided one evening not to start anymore, no matter how hard or long I pulled the starter cord. While my brain immediately started thinking about how to fix or replace the pump, the first reaction of Genevieve’s cousin, Julie, who was our chief syrup bottler for most of the season and on duty that night, was to organize a work party to manually haul the sap by buckets some 200 feet across the field and up a slight incline to the sugar shack, to save the tank from imminent overflowing. Not wanting to reject any solution, I gave the green light to this plan, and before I knew it, Julie’s family of four was on site, ready to help. Genevieve, who had gone home to enjoy a special birthday dinner with her parents, was also called in, and soon her, our son Téo, and her parents in nice clothes, were standing in the mud and the dark, hauling buckets. Julie, a true artist, had visions of a bucket brigade, but even with the nine strong workforce we had quickly assembled, we couldn’t span 200 feet. Téo, always looking for any excuse to use our ATV, had the bright idea of using it to bring the buckets up to the sugar shack, which we did.

Soon we self-organized into a pretty well-oiled machine, with people specializing in scooping sap out of the tank, putting on lids, putting buckets in the ATV, driving the ATV, unloading and unlidding the buckets, passing them up to someone standing at the lip of the big tank at the sugar shack, bringing them back down to the small tank, and cleaning them. Marianne, Julie’s 13 year old daughter, took the role of the person at the top of the chain who dumps the buckets into the big tank. Unfortunately, she would sometimes drop them on the person handing them up to her; both Julie and Genevieve got down-the-neck-and-boots drenched with freezing sap at different points. Marianne dropped one bucket that I handed up to her, but I managed to dodge out of its way.

An example of our 10 year old son getting to use the ATV – in this case hauling wood, not sap.

While I was grumpy at having to go through this after a long day’s boiling and no supper yet in my belly, everyone else seemed to be in high spirits, enjoying the urgency of coming together for a common cause. After about an hour’s work, we had emptied half of the 500 gallon tank and felt like it would hold the sap that would come into it that night. We could get a replacement pump in the morning.

When I got the pump back to the house and could get a better look at it, I realized that it had simply run out of oil. I topped it up and it started right away.

Soon after we navigated this second hurdle, fate threw us another challenge: Covid came knocking. First it was a friend and classmate of Téo who tested positive. Then it was the family downstairs from us, who also have a child in Téo’s class. We had been in contact with both of them in recent days. We kept Téo home from school and held our breath. We told ourselves that we simply couldn’t get sick right now, in the thick of the maple season, when our farm makes 50% of its annual income. I keep an arsenal of herbal/food remedies on hand for situations like these, and I pulled them all out in an effort to stop the virus in its tracks: tea made from elderberry syrup, fire cider (apple cider vinegar infused with spicy foods), and a bone broth soup loaded with garlic and ginger. Genevieve, Téo, and I all spent one day feeling abnormally tired (it was hard to tell if it was the beginning of a viral infection or simply the cumulative draining of weeks of work with barely a break, but I suspect the former), but then we all felt better the next day. We never tested positive on any rapid tests. I don’t know whether it was my herbal remedies, pure luck, or force of will, but we all managed to dodge Covid for a sixth round. Afterwards I felt cockily triumphant: “You think you’re so tough, eh Covid? Well you just met your match!”

But our old pump’s health was obviously not so robust, and it soon burned through the oil I had added and stopped running again. This time more oil did not revive it. I was more prepared now, and quickly borrowed our friends’ pump at Juniper Farm, which tided us over until I could make it to Princess Auto and buy a new one. When we first started our maple operation eight years ago, we didn’t have electricity at the sugar shack, which was partly why we bought a gas powered pump. Now, however, we do, so I bought an electric pump this time. No more oil.

The worst was behind us. We cruised to the end of the season, the sap coming in slower now. We had made so much syrup, we had to order more bottles and buckets to put it all in. Our firewood supply – all 57 face cords of it, dwindled to just a few cords of poorly dried logs at the bottom of piles. When Genevieve sniffed the sap tank and came up with a wrinkly nose and a “yuk” expression – the warmer weather had taken its toll on the sap quality and we deemed it no longer fit for syrup – we were happy to pull the taps and declare the season over. We had beaten our old syrup season record – set it 2020 – by about 700 litres.

The small mountain of firewood we go through – all from trees cut down for other reasons and delivered to us by arborist Tim Butler.

All the other syrup producers I’ve heard from have reported similar record levels this year. If that holds true across Quebec, which makes 70% of the world’s maple syrup, the feared syrup shortages reported by the media over the winter can be laid to rest for this year, at least.

Why was this season so good? First and foremost, as always, it comes down to the spring weather. Syrup producers want long and slow springs – the opposite to the fast warm up most winter weary Canadians yearn for – and that’s pretty much exactly what we got. It didn’t freeze much at night, but, unlike buckets, which require nightly freezes to keep filling, it’s not all that necessary if you have tubing and vacuum; the sap keeps running all night, which can actually lead to more sap when it doesn’t freeze. And the daytime highs stayed below 15 at the most, usually in single digits, which kept bacteria levels in the sap to a minimum and the sap quantity and quality high.

Beyond weather conditions, we have to give ourselves some props. We managed to keep our vacuum levels high this year – at least 20″ mercury, usually about 25″ (30″ is the theoretical highest possible for this unit of measure for vacuum) – which is attributable to good tapping, well maintained sap collection tubing, and timely in-season repairs of leaks. The lack of many deep freeze/thaw cycles, which can push taps out of trees, also probably contributed. Every inch of vacuum brings in 3% more sap, so you can nearly double your sap collection with high vacuum, with no apparent harm to the trees.

Finally, after years of often waking up to an overflowing sap tank, we managed to get a pretty good handle on that problem by installing a clear tube on the outside of the tank that allows us to see the level in the tank through binoculars from our house. A light shining on the tube makes it visible at night. I believe there were only a couple of unfortunate sap spillage events this year.

Despite the equipment breakdowns, and the near miss from Covid, we had our most successful year yet. Now we just have to sell it all.

Here’s where I should mention where you can buy some of this year’s crop: our farmstand, the Wakefield Market, our online store, and the Marché de l’Outaouais. Every winter we also offer pre-orders and a reduced price for purchases over five litres for next year’s crop (our “syrup share program”). If you want to be put on our email list for that, let us know.

Thanks for reading, and enjoy our region’s liquid gold!

The final product!