Sweet and sour: First tap on, Maple Weekend off in Ontario

Madison Chretien and granddad Frank Heerkens with new sap pumping station at Kemptville Agroforestry Centre.

Tom Van Dusen
Nation Valley News

CHESTERVILLE — COVID-19 permitting, the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers Association is planning a sweet new fall event to replace its traditional Maple Weekend open house normally held at the beginning of April.

For the second year in a row, OMSPA has been forced to cancel the free-flowing weekend because of pandemic protocols. In the past, the event has drawn up to 15,000 visitors to participating sugar bushes across the province.

If good to go, the fall event will occur between Sept. 25 and Oct. 3; similarly to the April weekend, it will entice syrup lovers to visit participating sugar bushes with the extra benefit of celebrating the fall colours and perhaps seasonal produce such as pumpkins and apples. Details will come later.

The association announced this week it shut the tap on Maple Weekend to ensure the safety of producers and customers alike. However, it will go ahead March 5 with a live, limited attendance official First Tap featuring regional dignitaries at 1,000-tap On The Bend Sugar Shack south of Chesterville operated in partnership by Frank Heerkens, OMSPA president for two years effective at the beginning of 2021.

The first Eastern Ontarian to hold the post in 40 years, Heerkens said it’s traditionally the president’s prerogative to host the First Tap. There are no other live events planned at On The Bend this season; the focus will be on building online sales, curbside pickup, and syrup delivery with no amount too small to drop off.

Also citing C-19 concerns, earlier this month South Nation Conservation shelved its popular K-12 Maple Education Program held at Oschmann Forest Conservation Area, Ormond, for the second season in a row. Heerkens buys and collects the pipelined sap from 500 taps at that 18-acre site which will happen again this season.

Virus or not, maple syrup production will begin in most parts of the province in early March, said Heerkens, who also maintains the sugar bush as well as processing sap drawn from 1,000 taps at Kemptville Agroforestry Centre, now owned by the  Municipality of North Grenville.

Assisted by granddaughter Madison Chretien, Heerkens thins the bush, clears debris, installs pipeline and taps, and built a new wooden, wired, sap transfer station for this season. In return, he gets all of the sap and access to the gleaming evaporator on site.

Adding to his collection, Heerkens has purchased 96 acres near Perth, a portion of which will be put into production next season. As is the case with the other bushes, the latest acquisition is certified by the Eastern Ontario Model Forest group to be sustainably managed.

Below, Frank Heerkens presides over the ceremonial first-tapping of the 2020 season, in late February last year, at Sand Road Sugar Camp.

Like Heerkens, many producers who normally rely on visits to their home sites to make sales are moving online where they’ll make arrangements to get syrup into the hands of customers. He said members are committed to conforming with health advisories and doing their part in combating the virus.

While there was early concern that last year could be a bust partly because of C-19 restrictions, production province-wide was up 30 per cent over 2019, itself a banner year, Heerkens said. In his own case, he made 695 gallons of syrup with only 13 gallons remaining.

“They’re sitting on my desk and I keep getting calls from people who want them. I’ll get them delivered… but I’ve been really busy lately setting up the bushes.”

Syrup makers who’ve suffered most have been those with pancake houses and no customers to fill them, said Heerkens who doesn’t offer such an attraction.

As president of OMSPA, he said one of his priorities will be trying to pump up syrup production and sales in Ontario. While the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food is routinely looking for ways to increase off-shore sales, Heerkens said producers are only filling 60 per cent of provincial demand.

“We should be fully serving our own market as the first priority. Right now, we’re processing about four million pounds of syrup a year. We could double existing production and sell it all here in Ontario.”

Members of the public are encouraged to contact local syrup operations to find out if they’re offering limited in-person visits, curbside pickups, and/or online sales. An interactive location map and list of member producers, along with nutritional information and recipes, is available at www.ontariomaple.com.

Below, at the former Kemptville Agroforestry Centre’s revived maple sugaring operation in 2018, Heerkens discusses the industry and the upcoming Maple Weekend of that year. The popular event is, of course, off for 2021.
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