Gathering when the sap is running: the sweet and early taste of spring

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By Sheila Phibbs

The Haldimand Press

Buckets hanging on trees, hose lines running through the forest, smoke and steam rising from sugar shacks: these are all familiar signs that it’s maple syrup time and a reminder that spring is approaching. But this year’s tapping season came early – and when the sap is flowing, you have to start collecting.

James Richardson of Dunnville has been tapping maple trees for more than 40 years from the time he was in 4-H, placing buckets on trees around the farmhouse. He and his wife, Kirsten, own and operate Richardson’s Farm and Market. They tap 1,200 trees each year; approximately 620 trees are on a pipeline with buckets used to collect from the remaining trees.

This year sap collection started in February, a week sooner than in 2022. Richardson says that’s happened before but, “the difference is the amount of syrup that we got in February, about one third of the crop by the end of the month…. We’ve made some good quality syrup, mostly amber.”

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DUNNVILLE—James Richardson and his wife, Kirsten, in the farm store where various maple products are sold. Below, James checks the sap in the evaporator.

Richardson observed that the syrup was darker by the end of February but turned back to a lighter colour after some cold days in March. Weather is always a variable, and he says that a stretch of warmer daytime and overnight temperatures could mean the end of the season. 

A good season would see one litre of production from each tap, and Richardson says average production is six tenths of a litre per tap currently. While the early start has provided good quality, they won’t know until the end of the season if it means more production overall.

The early start also gave them time to get ready for farm tours and school visits. The Richardsons sell their syrup in their farm store, along with farmers’ markets and some local businesses. Their store also features a variety of products that are made in house with their maple syrup, such as maple butter tarts, maple baked beans, and maple spiced apple sauce.

Across the county in Jarvis, retired dairy and poultry farmers Minne and Annie Vander Molen have been producing maple syrup as a hobby for eight years. Minne says, “We’ve always liked the maple trees and our grandson was doing it. I was always fascinated with the way they did maple syrup.”

Annie keeps records of each season and notes that the production of syrup is “interesting as it changes as you go along.” The couple usually get ready in early February and are collecting sap by the middle of the month, but this year they started tapping on January 2 and were collecting on January 11. Minne says, “This is by far the earliest ever starting.” 

January 2 was a nice day as he walked through the bush. He decided to drill into a tree to check for sap. He recalls, “It didn’t drip out, it ran out!” According to Annie, “It was freezing at night and warm in the day. It was maple syrup weather…. The long-range forecast was even good.”

As small-scale producers, the Vander Molens usually bottle 100 to 150 litres; their goal was to reach 150 litres this year. With the help of a family friend who is learning about maple syrup production, they were able to exceed that number. 

While they sell some syrup, much of what the Vander Molens produce is shared with family and friends. 

Minne explains, “We’re not in it as a business but a hobby. It is time consuming but for retirement, it’s a beautiful hobby. It’s nice to be in nature; a farmer can’t sit between four walls.”

Richardson shares that passion for maple syrup and says, “Once you start it’s in your blood.” 

He quotes an old saying: “As the syrup season goes, so goes the rest of the year.” As a market farmer he admits, “I hope it’s a long, bumper crop syrup season and we experience that through the year.”

But, as all farmers are aware, he acknowledges, “You just don’t know what the weather is going to do. That’s the gamble of farming; you’ve got to go with the weather.”

Here’s hoping the weather holds out for a great year for our farmers.