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Hastings County is Pretty Sweet: Just Check Out its Sugar Bushes

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It’s March and maple syrup producers in Hastings County are gearing up for another sweet season. Hitting the sugar bush is an early harbinger of spring, especially significant this year given our long, housebound winter with COVID-19.

Maple syrup has a long history that is tied to our culture and roots. Indigenous people understood the benefits of sap as a spring tonic – it contains all sorts of nutrients, antioxidants and minerals – and passed the concept to early settlers. We’ve been making maple syrup in Hastings for generations which explains the association of maple syrup with pancakes and hope.

 The essence of making maple syrup is simple: collect sap, which is about 98% water, from maple trees and then reduce or ‘boil down’ the sap to make syrup in what’s traditionally termed a ‘sugar shack’. The sap begins to run when the days begin to warm in February and March, and the night temperatures remain below freezing. It takes approximately 40 litres of sap to produce a litre of syrup, which requires a fair amount of effort. Nothing else is added, which is why the product is called ‘pure maple syrup’. Liquid gold. Canadiana in a jar. 

Some producers still use traditional buckets and spiles to ‘tap’ into the trees, but most operations now use sophisticated vacuum systems, plastic tubing, reverse osmosis, and state-of-the-art evaporators. No matter the method, making maple syrup requires a lot of work and fortitude.

There are roughly a dozen major operations in the county, as well as many small, backyard producers. Some have websites or Facebook pages, while others post a sign at the end of their driveway. No matter the method, maple syrup and all of its derivatives – from taffy, candy, butter, sugar, and cheese, to maple-scented candles and soaps– are pretty sweet.

Local Focus: Three Sweet Operations

  1. Palmateer Farms – Tweed

Palmateer Farms Maple Sugar Bush has been tapping trees for three generations since the 1940s. Steven Palmateer, and his father, Larry, now tap about 5000 trees annually, and they “love hosting horse-drawn tours of the bush, school tours, and pancake breakfasts”, but this year, Steven says that “they are waiting to see since things are up in the air with COVID.” So far, Steven says that “the biggest difference this year is tramping through so much snow.” You can order products from their website, Facebook page or by phone.

  1. Pure Local – Madoc 

Pure Local 62 – Yearwood Family Sugarbush, located south of Madoc, is a relatively new venture. Jeremy & Crystal Yearwood started with 150 taps in 2017 and now tap 1800 trees. Jeremy says that they use an “old-fashioned wood evaporator and reverse osmosis” and that their “five-year-old can pretty much give a tour of the operation.” He also believes that COVID has had a positive effect on maple producers because “the general public has started to support where their food comes from – people want to know where things are from and they’re ‘upset’ that big box stores are open, but small businesses aren’t. Although there’s less traffic to the bush, this has translated to more on-line sales and curbside pick-up.” Jeremy says that “it’s been incredibly humbling that so many local people want to support us – we’ve been lucky to have many alliances and partnerships.”

Jeremy is passionate about what he does, even given the challenges of startup glitches, heavy snow and COVID-19, and he finds interactions with his community “very rewarding because there are so many good people in the industry who care about the environment.” He wants to leave their 85 acres of trees “better than when we got here.”

  1. Trillium Ridge – Tyendinaga

Trillium Ridge Sugarworks or “Mah-kwan kadeek”, owned and operated by Terry & Vickie Gervais, is “more of a family affair”, especially now.  Vickie is originally from the Wolastoqey First Nations in New Brunswick, so their Indigenous connection to maple syrup’s non-colonial roots, as well as their connections with Tyendinaga schools, is noteworthy. Their daughter, Torie, says that both this year and last year there haven’t been as many local people around to help out, given COVID. This year, Terry started early before the snow became deep. This is also the second year that they “haven’t served breakfast or hosted school tours, which Terry describes as feeling “a bit lonesome.” The Gervais family bought the farm in 1979 and tap 10,000 trees. They retail in many local stores, or you can call or order on-line.

There are many other maple syrup producers in Hastings County.

The Ontario Maple Syrup Producers Association (OMSPA) lists 600 Ontario sugar makers; these are the ones listed for Hastings County:

Harvest Hastings also lists several local producers:

Although Mapleweekend, which usually happens the first weekend in April and is hosted by OMSPA, may not happen this spring, you can still support local producers who take part in the event. They include:

Maple products are a great way to sweeten up spring and offer yet another opportunity to support local businesses.

      And that’s pretty sweet!

MORE REASONS TO EXPLORE HASTINGS:

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