I used to get a feeling of dread descend on me as maple syrup season approached, fearing for what might go wrong, and for the workload. For farmers, winter is our time off, and maple season is a hard reimersion back into the grind.
But as this spring sap season approached, no dire forebodings stirred my gut, only a calm confidence that we’ve seen this before, and gotten through it, succesfully. Five times now; this was our sixth time through the wringer.
I was not proven wrong; it did go well, on the whole. Which is funny, because our motto this year, something we’ve heard many a syrup producer say, was, “J’ai jamais vu ça!” Pipes froze that had never frozen before, valves in pumps gave out that had never given out before, we nearly boiled our evaporator dry when slushy ice stealthily blocked the sap intake, and one morning we went out to find both our sap tanks overflowing simultaneously. Perhaps after we’ve done this for 25 years, we’ll stop seeing new things, but I doubt it. I hope not.
But at the end of the day, we produced some really delicious maple gold, and lots of it. Every year, except 2018 when we made about the same as the previous year, we’ve made more syrup than the year before, and this year was no exception. Which is interesting, because everything we’ve heard says that yields should go down as your sap collection tubing ages, especially with the relatively new smaller diameter 3/16 tubing that we use. Yet we’ve seen the opposite. Maybe we were just really bad at this job in the beginning, and now we’re finally starting to figure it out.
My gambling was a mixed bag this year. Seeing what a mild winter we had, I bet Geneviève $20 that we would be done boiling by the end of March. Keeping in mind that the earliest we had ever ended before was April 18, this was bold bet. And foolhardy, as it turned out; we didn’t end our boiling until April 16, still earlier than before, but a far cry from March 31. But my other bet did pay off: five cents with Téo, our eight-year-old son, that we would make more syrup than the year before. Cha-ching!
Our biggest problem this year was that our taps kept working their way out of the trees. They wouldn’t actually fall out, but a number of them would come out enough to start leaking air, which is a problem when you’re trying to maintain high vacuum within your tubing system. I think it’s the freeze/thaw cycle – a blessing that pumps sap out of the trees every spring – that also causes the taps to work their way out of their holes. We’ve had this problem before, but this year it seemed to reach a crisis point. Whereas in the past one round of tapping the spouts back in would suffice, this year we repeated that ritual three or four times in some sections. Fortunately we had farm co-owner and neighbour, Jean-Charles, forced by COVID-19 to stay home from his teaching job and looking for some mental health exercise, happy to jog around the woods retapping. He would return to the sugar shack drenched in sweat and check the vacuum levels, usually satisfied with the positive effect he’d had.
We think that this problem has gotten worse because we haven’t replaced many of our taps in four or five years, and the plastic has lost its ability to grip onto the wood. Many syrup producers replace their taps on a more frequent rotation, some every year, because it’s been shown that doing so increases sap yields. The bacteria in older taps inhibits sap flow from the tree. We’ve been resistant to the waste that more frequent tap replacement entails, but the lesson from this year is that five years is too much to ask from one tap. So this fall we’re going to replace all our taps, and after that we’ll replace them on a four year rotation. We won’t always have Jean-Charles around, looking to use our sugarbush as his gym.
And new taps should mean even more syrup, so I’m already looking cockily forward to another record breaking year next season.
I suppose I can’t talk about this sugar season without reference to the effect that COVID-19 had on it (besides Jean-Charles’ help). We did our first boil March 10, just before all hell broke loose with the pandemic in Canada. But we normally self-isolate and clear our calendars during this season anyway, because we don’t have time for anything else, so in that sense the change was not that dramatic. But there were staffing issues, as several of our helpers had to stay home. Fortunately Bianca, a young woman who had lost her job due to COVID-19, and who had bottled for us two years ago, stepped into the breach. She was just about to send out her resume when we called her wondering if she could work for us.
And through all of this, Téo was of course home from school. He was a help at the sugar shack, moving wood or putting bottles in the warmer, about in equal measure to being a hinderance, when he was grumpy or bored and wanted to go home. Our tradition of having an almost bottomless supply of potato chips at the shack was some help in keeping him happy, but it wasn’t a panacea. Again, we are much in debt to our farm-mates, Jean-Charles and his wife Ginger (check out their new farm business on the land we share: https://fermesol.ca/), for taking him under their wings many a day and allowing him to play at home with their kids.
Despite these inconveniences, we’re in a better place than many businesses right now, as we’re still allowed to operate, and there has been a significant uptick in interest in local food. The Marché de l’Outaouais, a local food producers cooperative based in Hull that we’re a part of, has seen its overall sales triple or quadruple in the past month. Just six months ago, they were at death’s door; with dwindling sales, it was looking like they might have to fold. Similarly, traffic at our farmstand has been unprecedented. We are humbled by the support people have given to local agriculture, and hope we can do our part to help feed our community through these troubled times.
The end of syrup season is another inflection point for us, as we try to transition as quickly as possible from this very intense yet focussed work, into a time of year when the work is just as intense, but “madly off in all directions”. The snow melts to reveal a hundred forgotten projects, which will soon be demanding our full attention. As I write this, we are still in syrup clean-up mode, but very soon will come strawberry and apple planting, a foray into larger scale potato and squash cultivation for local food banks, getting our home vegetable garden going, doing taxes, figuring out home deliveries, and diving into our major undertaking for the year: building a commercial kitchen on the farm.
Stay tuned to this blog – I hope to post regular updates as the story unfolds. Stay well, everyone.