10 April 1998

crystal killer on the maple

Maple syrup production is part of Canadas heritage but the ice storm has cast a

heavy blow to the industry which will affect it for the next 30 years.

Tessa Gates talked to John Hunter in his sugar bush

THE ICE storm turned John Hunters maple woods into "a glittering crystal palace – a glass forest." But such spectacular beauty has its beastly side, and it will affect his profits for the next 30 years – the time it will take for new trees to mature.

"There was no wood visible, just ice wrapped round everything – two inches on a half-inch limb," says John, a maple syrup producer from Spencerville with a 16.18ha (40-acre) sugar bush, an average size for the area.

Damage to his woods seems random. "There is no rhyme or reason to why some trees stood it and others didnt. Some big trees were almost stripped, others were fallen but young trees took the worst beating. We are going to be 50% down on profits for the next 30 years."

The ice storm was of a severity he had never had to deal with before, and on the Monday and Tuesday the trees were withstanding the freezing rain. "Then a real heavy ice came Wednesday and Thursday. The trees were bent down but not broken, and my spirits were raised as I thought they were holding," recalls John. "But on Friday it was -25C (77F) and you couldnt have been in London in the middle of the Blitz and heard more noise."

&#42 Breaking apart

The noise was the sound of the trees cracking and breaking apart. "It was like artillery fire all night. You just couldnt believe it and I wish I had recorded it."

Johns immediate worry was that the trees would come down on the electricity lines. "We kept yanking them off but half a dozen hydro poles snapped," says John. "It has been a big cultural shock to find out how reliant we all are on electricity. Mother Nature knocked out the grid system over a huge area. Even the military who came in to help hadnt seen 250 miles with no power, even in war zones."

Wait and see is the order of the day with the broken trees. "The maple has the best defence mechanism of any tree for survival," says John. "We havent cut any broken trees down yet, just cut limbs out. It is where the tops are out that the real damage is done; you need the little limbs at the top to be intact. Some damage that looks severe might heal but if it is cracked right through the tree and disease gets in, well… by fall we will know."

&#42 Red leaves

Maples leaf out in May and by the end of September the leaves turn red. "Leaves on a diseased tree will go pale green in August and we will mark those trees and next year we wont tap them and see if they survive."

The trees are tapped for their sweet sap which is boiled to produce maple syrup. Tapping doesnt harm a healthy tree but it is a wound best not inflicted on a tree under stress. In John Hunters wood, tapping starts Mar 1 and ends around Apr 18-22 when the buds break, imparting a pungent taste to sap.

Maple syrup is only produced in south-east Canada and north-east US since it is dependent on the right climatic conditions of cold nights and sunny days. "You have to have the right fluctuations of temperature," explains John. "You need the trunk to freeze to stop the sap from rising too high. The pressure builds up from the roots and when it thaws the sap will seek the easiest way out, which will be the tap."

The tap is a spile inserted into a hole drilled into the sap wood and from this the sap drips into a bucket or into a plastic tubing system.

"Once the sap runs, the pressure equalises so we need the trunk to freeze up again for at least eight hours or even a couple of days, and then a quick change to a sunny day again so the sap releases quickly. Small thaws you dont want, and mild weather soaks the sap up the trees," says John, who belongs to the Syrup Producers Association, which has 104 members in Leeds and Grenville counties.

It takes about 40 litres of sap to make one litre of syrup and John produces 1200-1400 litres (260-300gal) of syrup a year, which he sells straight from the farm.

John produces the syrup in a room behind the sugar shanty – the pancake house in the middle of his woods that he opens just for the tapping season. Syrup making is basically an evaporation process with the sap boiled in a huge wood-fired evaporator until it becomes a thin syrup, then finished in 32 litre (8gal) batches over gas, before being strained and cooled. It is reheated before the final canning and packed hot to sterilise the containers. The official standard for number one syrup is 66.5% sugar.

Around 2500 people seek out the sugar shanty during the short season to enjoy "Pancakes – $6.50 (£4.60) plus tax for all you can eat" and buy his syrup, maple butter, maple fudge and maple sugar candy.

"Its mostly people coming out from Ottawa at weekends and locals in the week. Older people like to come out for a taste of the syrup again," says John, adding that his 94-year-old uncle, Gordon, comes in daily and his own dad, Carl, eats syrup every day, even on his cornflakes.

"Maple syrup is even more popular today than it was in the past, as schools look to our history. We have school parties here and they get a tour, a horse ride and pancakes. When I went to school everyone had a sugar bush; now they dont and we are part of the countrys heritage."

But the public wont be shown round the woods this year, it is too dangerous – "there are widow-maker branches that need taking out" – and too much work still has to be done in them.

&#42 Broken stuff

"So far we have mainly gone through and knocked broken stuff to the ground. It has been too frozen to drag it out and the deer have had a smorgasbord of young buds to feast on," says John, who has wolves, raccoons, black squirrels and porcupines among the wildlife in his sugar bush.

"When the snow is gone we will have to cut up the limbs and chip the brush. The brush wood is good for nutrients but we must chip it or it will be tinder dry in the summer and we dont want fires."

He is surprised that there have not been major injuries to people working in the areas maple woods. "There have been spring-loaded trees snapping back and everything is shuddering, yet the only injuries have been bumps and bruises," he says. "And I am amazed that people in the towns werent losing limbs with chain saws. Someone must be smiling on them. The local storekeeper sold 35 chainsaws in two days – almost his total annual sales. And he didnt really want to sell them to some people as they didnt know what they were doing with them. Some even bought the big commercial saws – it is miraculous that the ambulances werent running all day."

Quite how much it will cost to clear up the maple woods and what price maple syrup will be in the future, is still being debated. "Some producers say we should recoup costs now and others say if we come too high it will hit our sales. We have added 10% and know production will be 40-50% down," says John. "In Quebec, which produces 80% of Canadas maple syrup, they will have a 10-15% increase in prices. Next year will be the big hit and that could be 50%."

For this season, his price stands at $16/litre, the evaporator is steaming and the little chipmunk that sneaks into the sugar shack to sit on Johns arm as he watches the boiler, continues to visit. But a shadow is cast over the profitability of maple syrup production for years to come. "We have never had to deal with that before and even we dont know how bad it will be," says John.

Main picture: John Hunter

collecting sap. Inset above: Clearing up after the ice storm will take time and so far John has just cut out dangerous trees and limbs.

Its a family affair and everyone helps and gets fed too. Johns dad Carl, sister Ann and daughter Brooke give their own maple syrup the pancake test.