Coming on the heels of our own maple syrup making at Downsview Park was the Elmira Maple Syrup Festival. This year on April 5 they marked their 50th anniversary with sugar bush tours; pancake flipping contests; antique, toy and craft shoes; pony rides; maple taffy making and maple themed food vendors as far as the eye could see. Interestingly, the festival coincides with volunteer month, over 2000 volunteers help to make the festival a success. As the world’s largest maple syrup festival over 10, 000 visitors from all over the world will flock to the town of almost 12, 000. In 2000, the festival made the Guinness Book of World Records as the World’s Largest Single Day Maple Syrup Festival with 66,529 people attending.
After all the stats and tastes of the Maple Syrup Festival I was left with one question: what is life like on a maple syrup farm?
I spoke with the charming Dan Goetz from Shady Grove Maple Co. and one of the festival’s vendors, to find out some of the quirks of this life. Dan has recently become Chair of Promotions for the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers Association and is focused on getting Ontario maple farmer’s syrups into a major grocery store near you, side by side with the stuff from big factories.
Colleen: Your website states that you have been doing this for 15 years. Did you take over from family? How did you get into this line of work?
Dan: I married a farm girl. Her family did it as a hobby. I didn’t grow up on a farm but lived in a small town. At first we did enough syrup for the family but we got more interested and put in 2000 pails. We then tried pipeline because it was becoming too much work!
You have 22, 000 taps, how many people do you employ?
We have 1 person full time year round, in harvest production we have 4 people full time. For the tourism and tapping, sporadic labour of 12 to 15 people.
What’s life like on your farm during maple tapping season?
As the season comes you’re excited and adrenaline is going. It’s just go go go. This is different than other cash crops, we can’t pick when we harvest our crop. With sap, when tanks are full they have to be emptied or it’s going on the ground, regardless of weather. We dance to Mother Nature’s drum and she has some weird beats sometimes. When the season’s over you’re completely exhausted but when it’s over you’re done. Two months of craziness but 10 months of doing your thing: marketing, doing markets. There are some very, very short nights and short tempers.
Is your farm strictly for syrup making? What else do you do on your farm?
We’re 80% maple syrup; we raise drug and hormone free turkeys from May to Christmas, for the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons. Anything that can be made from turkey will be sold in our store. We do a bit of hay, my son cash crops one field. There’s not a lot of money there. We also do custom boils. Others bring us their sap, we boil it down and split it 50/50.
There is an image of the solitary farmer looking off into the distance across fields. You offer tours and have a presence at various markets. What role does customer service play in your line of work?
That’s why we started the tourism. It brings people out to the farm. 95% don’t know how it really works. People learn how we can do so much volume, then you’ve landed a customer for life. We are very concerned with food safety and traceability. People are also looking to support the local farmer. We are not afraid to show the whole process [that goes into creating] the food that we are doing.
What is your favourite piece of equipment or favourite job to do?
I run the most technological equipment, the reverse osmosis machine, the meat and potatoes why we can process so much. It takes out 75% of water. That’s my maple Corvette. I’m like a guy driving around in his Corvette. It will process 2000 gallons of sap, that’s 50 gallons of syrup, an hour. Then we boil it further with conventional evaporators.
Photo credit: Shady Grove Maple Co.
What question do you wish people would ask you about but don’t?
When on the farm people pretty must ask all kinds of questions. We hire people and that is their job to teach people and answer questions. If they get one they don’t know they just ask us while we are working. The guides are specifically in charge of answering. A lot of educated people are asking some really smart questions. People don’t know until they come exactly how it works. We did a presentation for kids. We asked them what season the syrup is harvested in; they have a 25% chance of getting it right. Well, less than 25% of those kids got it right.
The tubes and hoses running from the trees look a bit sci-fi. While working, have you ever thought that your farm would make a good setting for a sci-fi or horror movie?
[Laughing.] We were talking about running a Halloween wagon ride through the bush but decided that is our downtime and didn’t want to. I walk those bushes, I know it all inside out. We have enough pipes to go from here to Markham and we walk those pipes three times a season. I can eat everything I want now.
Finally, where can we find your products?
In Toronto we’re at Sanagan’s Meat Locker in Kensington market. We’re always at the Royal Winter Fair, a staple there. Out this way [Guelph area]: Aberfoyle Farmer’s Market and Antique Market. The Elmira Maple Syrup Festival as you know and the Wellesley Apple Butter and Cheese Festival, this year we’re trying to get into the Distillery Christmas market [Lowe’s Toronto Christmas Market], and the store on the farm.
Miss out on the festival in Elmira? You can still take a tour of the Shady Grove farm on weekends and Good Friday until April 20th.