On a small woodlot, a spring tradition older than Ontario itself is finally warming up.
The spring harvest of maple syrup goes as far back as the indigenous peoples of North America, who began the process of tapping the sweet sap of hard maple trees, like the sugar maple, to make sugar.
While Southwestern Ontario isn’t as famous as Quebec and the U.S. northeast for maple syrup, the sweet stuff is still a tradition for many producers like the McLachlan family, whose family woodlot near Lobo has been harvested for at least the past three generations.
Another producer, the Robson clan near Ilderton, has worked their woodlots for only 40 years but considerably grown their output over that time.
Starting with 25 trees and an old iron kettle, the Robsons now tap 15,000 trees and string them together with eight to ten miles of main line, which collects the sap and is connected to a vacuum pump.
All the trees are tapped with one to three spigots.
A thin blue hose runs downhill from each tree to the main line.
“I would hate to think of how many hundreds of thousands of feet of the little blue line” runs through their various sugar bushes, said Jamie Robson, one of three brothers involved.
Robson said they’re late this year starting to tap trees because of the extremely cold winter that recently enveloped Southwestern Ontario.
“The syrup season is just delayed — it’s not lost,” he said.
“It’s like last year: We didn’t make anything till mid-March and we finished about as late as we ever have. We boiled our first (batch of sap) on March 15th and didn’t finish till April 11th, the last boil — that’s about two weeks behind normal.”
While maple sap can run for several weeks, “generally you make 80% of your syrup in 5 to 6 days of the year,” Robson said.
Those sweet spots on the calendar bring the conditions to make sap flow the best.
“We need that rapid freezing and thawing cycle, -5C at night and +5C in the day, high pressure, sunlight, no wind and that’s perfect,” Robson said.
Then, he started to laugh. “And the odds of getting that . . .”
Ross McLachlan, who runs McLachlan Family Maple Syrup, says he’s worried this season will be short like last year.
“We struggled tapping through the bush, and as soon as we were done tapping the warm weather came. In four days the snow was gone and in two weeks the season was over.”
Over a season, the average harvest is about “just over a litre per tap,” said Robson, who calls that “a pretty realistic value” for Ontario.
“We spend more time and energy for our return (in maple syrup) than anything else we do farming, but we like it,” he said.
— With files by Chatham Daily News, Sarnia Observer, Woodstock Sentinel-Review, St. Thomas Times-Journal, Stratford Beacon Herald
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SOME REGIONAL SUGAR BUSHES
Rolling Ridge Maple Products
Where: 22681 Vanneck Rd., Ilderton
Opens: March 7
Phone: 519 666-3257
McLachlan Family Maple Syrup
Where: 10279 Lamont Dr., Komoka
Phone: 519 666-2957
Palmer’s Maple Syrup
Where: 34308 Lake Line, west of Port Stanley
Phone: 519 769-0007
Springwater Maple Syrup Festival
Where: Springwater Conservation Area, 8079 Springwater Road south of Orwell
10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays in March; also open same hours during March Break
Giffin’s Maple Syrup Products
Where: 18862 Communications Rd. S., near Blenheim
Wortner’s Maple Syrup
Where: 29944 Zone Rd. 7, Bothwell
Phone: 519 695-3619
Ryan’s Sweet Maple
Where: 8354 Rawlings Rd., Lambton Shores
Phone: 519 786-4729
Where: 7739 Lakeshore Rd., Lambton Shores
Phone: 519 243-2961
McCully’s Hill Farm
Where: 4074 Perth Line, St. Marys
Phone: 519 284-2564
Hoover’s Maple Syrup
Where: 5896 Line 78, Atwood
Phone: 519 356-2132
Jakeman’s Maple Products
Where: 454414 Trillium Line, Beachville
Phone: 519 539-1366
Howard’s Maple Syrup
Where: 455241 45th Line, Woodstock
Phone: 519 475-6752