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24 Hour Reporter, Class Work

Maple syrup festival draws crowd

Maple syrup festival draws crowd
24 hours in London: 10 a.m.–noon

By Adam Wightman
awightm@uwo.ca

On a cool, sunny morning Mark Crinklaw is tossing a few logs into the fire compartment of his maple syrup evaporator. Its flames are boiling last night’s harvest of maple sap, now churning down to a sweet and thick amber-brown in the tank above.

The boiling-sap gives off a sweet, humid aroma that penetrates everything, leaving you smelling like pancakes long after you depart.

It is a smell that this sixth-generation, 59-year-old maple syrup farmer has smelled every March since he was a boy.  Back then he’d help his father make – on a smaller scale – the northern sweetness that he now sells to his customers for around $57 a gallon.

Sap is collected from 1,600 maple trees
Photo by Adam Wightman
The Crinklaws have 1,600 maple trees from which they collect sap.

“I’ve been making it all my life, and my grandparents did as well, every year since 1832, except a few years during the (Second World War),” he tells the audience of families who came to his maple syrup farm on their day off to learn about his trade.

More than 100 people, mostly parents and young children, attended the maple festival at Crinklaw Maple Products on his Westminster Drive farm in London’s southern outskirts. There were pancakes smothered in Crinklaw’s maple syrup, a Clydesdale-drawn wagon-ride tour of his maple trees, lessons on maple farming and plenty of syrup to buy.

Visitors to the festival got a glimpse of the old ways. A large cast-iron pot filled with sap was steaming on the front lawn above an open fire while an employee provided a history lesson on maple syrup.

Steve Linnear, a 26-year-old from Lambeth who is friends with the Crinklaws, brings his young son to the festival every year.

“The syrup is the reason you come,” said Linnear. “My son enjoys it, the tractors and the wagons.  Everyone is friendly. You get the history, too.”

With the help of his son Reid, Mark makes anywhere between 800-1,200 gallons of maple syrup each year during the harvesting season, which is typically between late February to late March.

Visitors at the maple festival
Photo by Adam Wightman
Young visitors at the maple festival get to see old methods for making syrup.

Maple farming is a Crinklaw family tradition that began when James Crinklaw and his wife and children emigrated from Scotland in 1832 to the same south London farm Mark operates. In those days, there was no cane sugar available, and James quickly learned from other settlers that there was an abundant supply of maple sugar in the trees surrounding his farm.

In all of the years the Crinklaws have made maple syrup, this year’s season began the earliest.  A string of unseasonably warm days in early February caused the sap to begin flowing earlier than expected.

Maple sap can be harvested only at the end of winter, when there are sub-zero temperatures in the nights and above ones during the days. The seesaw of cold nights and warm days circulates the sap up and down the tree, down in the night and up in the day, allowing it to flow from the small hole tapped into the tree’s base.

So when warm weather came early, it caught many maple farmers off-guard. Reid, 27, had to temporarily leave his job as a millwright at ACDelco to help his father tap the 1,600 maple trees he uses for production. “It was quite a rush to get all of the trees ready for production,” said Reid while loading some wood to fuel the evaporator.

They were able to begin harvesting without losing many days, Mark said.

It heralded the beginning of what are always hard seasons, full of long days and little sleep, Mark said.

“It’s 15-hour days. It’s a lot of work. You’re continually monitoring the thermometer. You have to be on call for most of the season, during the night, in the rain. It’s not always nice, sunny days,” said Mark, who also grows beans, corn and wheat as cash crops during the summer months.

Whenever it shoots above zero degrees during the season, Mark or Reid has to turn on the pump that sucks sap from his maples through a tube system into a container tank. It’s then loaded onto a truck and taken to his sugar shack for boiling.

The sap can go sour if it sits longer than 12 hours, so Mark likes to boil it immediately. This means he might have to fire up the evaporator in the middle of the night, he said.

Reid Crinklaw, left and Mark Crinklaw
Photo by Adam Wightman
Reid Crinklaw, left, and Mark Crinklaw produce around 1,000 gallons of maple syrup each season.

But before he does that, he runs the sap, which is 98 per cent water, through a reverse osmosis machine, which eliminates two-thirds of the water content. It’s then pumped into the wood-stove evaporator, which boils it down for an hour before it is run through the filter press to remove any sand and dirt.

It takes 40 gallons of raw sap to make just one gallon of finished syrup, which means that on a good year, Mark and Reid will boil down 40,000 gallons of sap.

This rendering process usually takes eight hours and leaves the two syrup farmers exhausted, Mark said.

Nearing 60, Mark said he wouldn’t be able to do it without his son’s help.

“If it wasn’t for him, I’d be toast. If he wants to do it, I’ll carry on. But it’s so much work that I don’t know if I can do it by myself anymore.”

Reid said he is more than happy to help his father, and speaks of maple farming like it is a way of life.

“I like the freedom to do your own thing. We’re able to set our own prices here. You work your own hours, although Mother Nature sets them for you. I like that.”

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About Western Journalism

We're members of the University of Western Ontario's master of arts in journalism program. Our blog represents a common theme in stories through our third term.

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