May 29, 2020

By JESSICA MARTIN

Her face has been on the front of maple syrup bottles since 1966 and her sugary syrup has glazed fluffy pancakes across the world, but for the Martin family, Aunt Jemima’s just doesn’t cut it.

Fred Martin, who is president of the Waterloo-Wellington Maple Syrup Producers Association, has been producing his own maple syrup under the West Montrose Maple Products label for the past 24 years.

Having a sugar shack and readily available syrup year-round, the family reaps the benefits of their labour – so much so that it’s hard to go back to the “fake stuff.” When the Martins dine at a restaurant, a mini bottle of their homemade syrup accompanies them.

According to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, Canada produces 85 per cent of the world’s maple syrup, valued at over $213 million annually. Ontario, second to Quebec in terms of product value, is home to 2,600 producers with an estimated 1.3 million taps and an annual production of more than one million litres of syrup.

About 80 per cent of the province’s maple syrup is produced by operations using a plastic tube collection system, with the remaining 20 per cent relying on traditional bucket-tapping procedures.

Martin is among the majority adopting newer techniques, including turning to his Blackberry as a useful resource. When the temperature rises at night, the sap begins to flow, and from his bed, Martin receives email alerts, letting him know what’s going on in the bush.

The Ontarian climate, cold winters with sunny, spring thaws, creates the perfect conditions for making syrup. Producers begin tapping trees when the temperatures hover around 5 C during the day and -5 C at night, and when the long range forecast shows the weather will hold long enough to make tapping worthwhile.

However, some years the weather doesn’t co-operate — like this year with the mild winter — and Martin said he doesn’t have high expectations.

“It’s very rare that you have two exceptional seasons in a row, and last season was exceptional with us producing about 2,400 gallons.”

This year, the lack of snow may affect the flow of sap.

“You want more snow sitting on top of the ground so that the frost won’t go as deep. If the frost goes deep it can take longer to come out and you won’t get sap as soon,” he said. “And by the time the sap starts to come, the tree is going to leaf out and you’ll kind of miss your season.”

The season is usually at its peak intensity beginning the first week of March and goes for about five to six weeks. Martin said the procedure and method for making the lip-smacking treat is more complicated than most people would imagine.

“It’s not just a moonshine, easy and simple process where you hang buckets from trees and magically have syrup,” he said. “It takes time, precision and hard work.”

The most complicated step in the procedure is boiling. Martin said it’s a mix of science and art to boil the sap and get it to the exact concentration of sugar that is needed.

The sugar concentration is measured in degrees Brix (the sugar content of an aqueous solution). One degree Brix is one gram of sucrose in 100 grams of solution. The sap has to reach 66 degrees Brix before it can be called maple syrup.

Jared Martin, Fred’s 21-year-old son, helps out with the boiling and said he almost enjoys the job as much as his father.

“It’s relaxing and I like spending time out in the bush,” he said. “But as for my dad, he’s pretty passionate about it.”

Fred said he doesn’t plan on leaving the business anytime soon. “This is something I can see doing even in my retirement years,” he said. “I won’t be involved to the extent that I am now, but I enjoy it too much to quit.”