Inviting the world to your home and business may not be everyone’s idea of a good thing to do, but after the past four years, George Conboy pretty much takes it all in stride.
Last weekend, visitors from all over made the trek north on 509 to Bell Line Road for the annual Maple Weekend, put on by the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers Association.
Along with his wife, Darlene, and a host of offspring and grandchildren, Conboy runs Conboy Maple. Down Bell Line a piece, Mel and Joyce Conboy run Oso Sweet Maple. They’ve all been doing it for generations.
And they seem to honestly enjoy showing people how it’s done.
“I look forward to it,” Conboy said. “It’s hectic, but it’s good for business — sales.
“I’m glad I got rid of all the snow (around the sugar shack) and put down some extra gravel (for parking etc).”
Every year is different, he said. And like any farming-related activity, they’re at the mercy of Mother Nature.
“We didn’t have much warm weather until last week,” he said. “But the syrup is excellent quality this year, all light.
“It may not be an exceptional year but I think it’s a good year (and) we’re still looking at a few more good runs, for sure.”
Conboy said they started tapping the last week in February and were done a week later.
“That’s more normal,” he said. “The last couple of Februarys have been colder.”
But really, what determines a year’s maple syrup production tends to be the summer before.
“The experts told us that with defoliation, there’d be a low sugar content,” he said. “They were wrong.
“You need lots of sunshine and sufficient rain (in the summer) so that that the trees produce more sugar.
“The year before last, it was wet and the sugar content was down to about 1 per cent.”
And while area public works managers may be bemoaning the freeze-thaw cycle’s affects on their roads, it’s just what the maple syrup producers need in late winter.
“As far as southwestern Ontario, the season’s over,” he said. “But here, we might just get a couple of weeks yet.”
Conboy said that maple syrup has become more popular in recent years.
“Maybe it’s because it’s a healthier sugar than the refined sugars,” he said. “But it’s also local and people seem to like the experience of coming out to the sugar shack.
“The media and everybody seem to be on board with it.”
And he’s OK with it becoming a popular hobby. People making their own doesn’t seem to affect his business and he sees it as a positive.
“The hobbyists are keeping the equipment dealers in business by buying evaporators and gear,” he said. “But once they find out how much work is involved . . .”
But hobbyist or just a fan of maple syrup, maple weekend brings people out.
“It’s been at least as good as or better than last year,” said Darlene. “We’re seeing a lot of new faces.”
There are a range of syrup makers in our part of the world. Syrup is, at its core, a very simple process, a lot of home syrup makers are able to make enough for family and friends with a one time investment of anywhere from a couple of hundred dollars to a few thousand depending on how they want to go about it.
It is also a bigger business. Commercial syrup makers can invest in the hundreds of thousands and bring in extended family or paid labourers for several weeks for 10,000 + tap operations, reverse osmosis machines and high end tanks and evaporators. We have the whole range in our area, and from the most basic to the most sophisticated, they are all equally dependent on the weather.
Not that long ago, winter weather patterns were a lot more predictable in this part of the world. The beginnings of spring, when the temperature rose above zero in the daytime for more than a day or two, tended to be sometime in early to mid March. Those who put up lines in the bush would work away in the second half of February to catch the earliest run and maximize the coveted early sweet sap, from which they produced the coveted, subtle extra light and light syrup that consumers loved so much.
There are now a lot of small scale, hobby operations around, and this is reflected in the local hardware stores carrying more and more syrup supplies each year, and even a dedicated store that has been set up by Northway Home Hardware, which sells evaporators and boiling pans, etc.
But for hobbyists, and professionals alike, the last couple of years have been a challenge because the season has been so early, and so extended. It’s all about hurry up and wait. Before the February long weekend is over it’s time to get the buckets out, find the drill bit and get ready to get started.
One local producer, who keeps records, said the last two years were the first time they started boiling sap in February (the 22nd in 2017, and the 21st this year) in at least 40 years with one exception, a first boil on February 28th in 2000.
You see where I am going here. Are these record early starts to the syrup season indications of the impacts of climate change?
The answer seems to be that on their own, two years of an early syrup season do not indicate climate change. But when we look back at the past 10 – 15 years and see that the start date, the length of the season, the stop and start nature of it as we go through warmer and colder spells each December, is different than it was before. This has an impact on the way syrup is produced, but fortunately it has not had a severe impact on production. For us hobbyists, it is not a big deal, there is not that much at stake, but for commercial producers who are constantly investing in their business and spend time in the off-season managing their sugar bush for the long run, the un-knowable impacts of climate change on syrup production over the next 25 to 50 years are something to think about.
We do know that sugar maples are resilient, the sap may run better and sweeter some years, based on a number of factors such as water in the ground, heat units in the previous summer etc., but even when stressed for a year or two the trees tend to recover and the sap has kept flowing for millenia.
Syrup producers have noticed that, with longer summers and shorter winters, trees are growing faster than they were, and the medium term impact of this change is not known.
We do know that sugar maples have a limited range. Is the limit of that range going to move north, as long term weather conditions change?
There is something special about syrup season. The milky colour of the early sap, the smells as the weather warms up, etc., the fleeting beginnings of spring.
I must say it was odd to be tapping this year in February as the ground was already softening up from heaving frost, snow was retreating everywhere and streams that normally break through in mid-season were already bubbling.
We don’t know if there is any reason to speculate that our maple based syrup culture may become a victim of climate change, but even those of us who have only dabbled in syruping for 15 or 20 years are becoming aware of changes in the seasons, and it is impossible not to wonder whether the tradition that predates us by a long, long time will continue into the near future or not.
The Lanark & District Maple Syrup Producers’ Association (LDMSPA) is hosting a Maple Syrup Beginner’s Workshop on Sept. 30, 2017, an all-day event to educate those looking to enter into maple syrup production on a home or commercial scale, as well as veteran producers looking to expand their knowledge base. The course, which runs from 9:15am to 4pm, will be held at the Lanark & District Civitan Hall, at 2144 Pine Grove Rd., Lanark Village.
Participants in the workshop will get the basics on identifying maple trees and tapping, sap handling and storage, equipment and supplies, boiling, density, filtering and bottling, and regulations and grading. A panel discussion and information on maple syrup production resources will also provide valuable information for syrup producers.
“Everyone can learn something from this workshop,” Dwight James, LDMSPA Director said, “Maple syrup production is one of those industries where there’s always more to learn, and for beginners getting started the learning curve can be intimidating.”
LDMSPA’s workshop is intended to reduce or eliminate that steep learning curve for entering maple syrup production, while offering experienced producers access to resources and information for expanding production or keeping up with changing regulations.
LDMSPA is a group of over 90 maple syrup producers located in the Lanark, Frontenac, Leeds and Grenville Counties, as well as the Ottawa-Carleton areas of Eastern Ontario. LDMSPA is one of 11 local organizations that make up the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers’ Association (OMSPA), an organization that represents maple syrup producers across the province.
As a membership-based organization LDMSPA supports its members by providing a forum to promote the production of maple syrup products, assisting members to stay current on changing industry regulations, and providing opportunities for networking, and education on the maple syrup industry in Ontario.
Cost for the event is $20 for OMSPA members, and $30 for non-members. Registrants who join OMSPA will receive the discounted price of $20. Registration fees include lunch during the event. For more information visit ldmspa.com.