For the Love of Maple

There is no sweeter respite from winter’s grip than the sap of the sugar maple tree, reduced down to syrup. A long-lived native hardwood abundant in Grey County, the maple has been tapped for its sap for hundreds or even thousands of years. The practice pre-dates the historical record, since North American First Nations tapped trees for an unknown (and undoubtedly long) period of time before European contact.

Pioneers treasured maple syrup as the first crop of the season and as a fortifying sweetener they could self-produce, unlike expensive imported sugars.

Maple products today are all the more prized, especially with the current vogue for healthy, local, sustainable, whole foods. And maple syrup’s rich, full body and slightly wild tang will never go out of fashion.

A lot more than syrup happens at Maplefest. Rural Ontario comes alive here at the end of winter, with a melee of sights, activities and tastes competing for attention. The local Optimist’s Club holds Maplefest on the site of a thriving maple syrup farm – the Love family’s sugarbush – so you can tour a modern operation in addition to taking in the festival revelry. Maplefest regularly draws up to 10,000 visitors. From the parking lot in Holstein you catch a wagon ride through hayfields to the upper festival site, which boasts all sorts of children’s activities and shows (kids under 14 get free admission) including Birds of Prey with James Cowan, Director of the Canadian Raptor Conservancy, live music, and a magician.

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You can browse a wide-ranging craft sale, as well as antique car and tractor shows (weather dependent). You can also take in various demonstrations including Survival in the Bush with author Gino Ferri and his rustic colleagues.

Down a gently sloping cart track is Love’s sugarbush, where you’ll find a sort of old-time village, with numerous demonstrations and culinary attractions among the maples including a blacksmith, wood carvers, taffy pulls, ice cream, butter-, candle- and sausage-making, a pancake house and a smokehouse.

Also down in the sugar bush stands a rough-hewn but serviceable barn-board building dubbed “Love’s Sweetness” that houses the latest evaporator and vacuum pump technology.

All the sap flows to this building. We see pails and spigots on trees around the festival site, but the vast majority of sap recovery comes via a high-tech long-distance tubing system. As production manager Steve Plume explains, “pails give you the lightest syrup: but the beautiful syrup is just a pile of work. Our lines bring the sap to us very fast. Our main trunk lines are what’s called a wet-dry system. The bottom line is always wet with sap. The top line is dry, and always carrying vacuum.” Yearly production averages about 1000 gallons of syrup, which the Loves bottle all year to meet demand. Their syrup is sold all over the world.

The Loves meter the sap production of their (roughly) 5000 tapped trees. Two years ago was a bumper crop with 250,000 litres of sap. Last year with its extra-warm March was a poor year, with only 114,000 litres of sap. “Last year we made syrup for just 10 days,” Plume explains. “That sounds really bad, but that ten days was a phenomenal run. Usually you go for runs of three days at a time maximum – it works its way up to a peak, then dies off, then freezes, then starts again. Our vacuum pumps weren’t off for 10 days and that’s never happened before. Then in late March and early April, it was beautiful sap weather again, but the trees were a little too green. Once they start to bud, it’s too late.”

This year, owner Ray Love is optimistic for a return to normal levels. In the third week of March he was making maple butter for Maplefest, and he’d already tapped one run during the thaw earlier in the month. He is expecting a half-dozen more runs by season end (mid-April) and believes there’s a good chance the sap could run right through the festival weekend. “This year is more typical so far,” says Love. “And we’ve had more snow – that’s a good thing. When it melts, more moisture goes directly into the root systems. Our maple trees were under a lot of stress last summer because of the drought. So this snow is certainly going to help.”

Maplefest runs Saturday April 13 through Sunday April 14.