The ins-and-outs of sap production

Today the sap is flowing steadily and we expect a good run. The maple tree cell structure is somewhat unique in that the cells contain both carbon dioxide and liquid. The cell structure is quite complicated but for our purposes the fact that the tree contains gas is the reason the sap runs even when the tree is still dormant in the spring. Under warm conditions the gas in the tree trunk, limbs, and twigs expends creating a pressure inside the tree which pushes the sap to the tips of the branches and also down the trunk and out the tap hole.

The sap runs when the pressure around the tap hole exceeds the atmospheric pressure and usually stops in the afternoon as the tree cools and the gas pressure decreases. As the temperature continues to fall the gas contracts further and the gas pressure inside the tree actually turns negative pulling fresh sap up from the roots and stores it in the tree ready for the next day’s sap run.

Sap is also pulled back out of the pipe line as well. This is not desirable as this sap is often infected with algae from the pipe line which hastens the healing and sealing of the tap hole, decreasing the sap flow. Usually, however, the temperature drops quickly below the freezing point and the sap is held in the pipe line with no problem.

This simple explanation of gas expansion and contraction does not fully explain all the reasons for sap flow but it is the major factor, and warm days and cold nights are eagerly awaited by the sugar maker.

The tank of crystal clear sap shown in the photograph contains 2000 gallons of sap and will make about 50 gallons or 200 litres of syrup. 1600 litres of water will be removed from this sap in the reverse osmosis (RO) machine and a further 350 gallons during the boiling process. The RO has made a major improvement to the efficiency of our process as it requires only 10% of the energy needed for the boiling process! Small RO units are now available so even the producer with a few hundred taps can consider this addition to his or her operation.  A boiling step is still required to produce the distinctive flavour of maple syrup, however.

A tank of maple sap ready for processing into syrup

Spring is here

Spring has officially arrived but we are still experiencing a period of wet weather and mild conditions. Not the best for maple sap but with vacuum on our tubing system we have been able to stimulate some sap flow and will be boiling today. Cold weather returns tonight which should reset the trees and provide another sap run on Monday and Tuesday.

The snow is slowly melting, and about 6 inches still remains in the sugar bush and shady areas. Rubber boots are still needed for a walk in the woods. The Shanty Men and Kettle Boys will be operating today and there will be taffy on the snow for a taste of maple syrup. Maple syrup and other maple products are available for sale as well.

Warm weather on the way

Warm weather is coming this weekend. If there is no frost tonight, we expect the sap to run all night and provide an ample supply for syrup making tomorrow. So far sap runs have been modest but the sweetness is steadily increasing from 1.4% to close to 3%. This makes a big difference to the production of syrup, as the amount of water that needs to be removed from the sap is substantially decreased.

Plans are underway to once again open our camp and trails to visitors with some Covid-19 protocols in place. The Shanty Men and the Kettle Boys will be operating, as well as the main camp. Lots of snow still on the trails so suitable footwear is essential.

A big pileated woodpecker created this hole in one of our maple trees at the road while searching for ants. If you see this illusive bird maybe you can snap a picture!

 A fresh pileated woodpecker hole

First Taste of Syrup for 2022

With the warm weather on Friday, we had a run of enough sap to start the RO and the evaporator.  Warm weather is expected again on Monday and we are ready for a really good run of sap to fill our tanks to the brim. We are now enjoying our first taste of fresh syrup.

Fresh maple syrup tastes oh so good
With fresh baked bread and butter
Just like down on the farm
When they were made by my mudder!

Ray Fortune
Fortune Farm Maple Sugar Bush

Tapping Completed

It’s always a big relief to finish tapping and know we are ready for the first run of sap. Winter seems to be staying with us for another week or so and it may be a late start to the season. All we can do is wait patiently for that first taste of fresh syrup.

Tapping looks easy until you have spent a day in the sugar bush on snowshoes moving from tree to tree and drilling several hundred holes in hard maple. We now have battery powered electric drills and special tapping drill bits that make the task much easier. In the very early days the pioneers did as the natives were doing and simply cut a gash in the tree with an axe and used a sliver of wood to direct the sap into a bucket on the ground. Effective but very hard on the tree. The next evolution was to use a two handed auger to bore a hole in the tree and a hand whittled hollow spile to direct the sap to a bucket on the ground.

The spiles were often made of sumac which has a soft central pith easy to remove to create a hollow spile. The augers handmade at the local blacksmith shop were an inch or so in diameter and also quite damaging to the tree. So smaller spiles were tried and  7/16” became an industry standard. Cast metal or rolled sheet metal in many specialized shapes were developed with much promotion that a particular shape enhanced sap flow. Hooks were added to hang the bucket and hold a bucket lid.Tapping bits were also improved and the brace and bit replaced the two hand auger. Things stayed this way until the 1960’s when the first plastic tubes and spiles were introduced.

Plastic tubing is now so common that it is hard to believe that it took 30 years or so for the switch to  tubing to become popular. Early tubing became brittle due to ultraviolet damage. It was prone to sag and required a lot of maintenance. Also syrup producers were reluctant to change from the way their family had made syrup for generations. However, with tubing that will now last 20 years or so and much better fittings and spiles, it is now the new standard.

About the same time that plastic tubing was introduced concern was growing about damage to the maple tree due to tapping and often overtapping. It takes 4 or 5 years for a tree to grow new wood to fully seal the hole of a 7/16” spile. Experiments were conducted on smaller hole sizes and a new size 5/16” has been adopted as the industry standard. A 5/16” hole will seal in two years on a healthy tree. Some producers are experimenting with 3/16” spiles and tubing but results are mixed. Vacuum assist is now used extensively on tubing systems to stimulate and increase sap flow. High vacuum, over 25” of mercury, will draw sap horizontally around the tree as well as vertically. This means the number of taps in a multi-tap tree can be reduced with no loss of sap flow. Another step forward in protecting our trees.

The most commonly asked question by first time visitors to our sugarbush is. “Do you have to put a new hole in the tree each year?”. We are surprised by this question but it appears that even people with no maple experience are concerned about the damage to the tree. And that is a welcome thought.

The next time you are in a sugar bush, take a look at the trees that have been tapped for several years.  You will see old tapholes and have a better appreciation as to why we are putting time and effort into better tapping equipment and methods.

Various spiles
Various spiles

Tapping Underway

With over a foot or 30 cm of snow, snowshoes are needed to move about the sugar bush this year. Snow in some parts of New Brunswick is over ten feet or 300 cm and we are glad we don’t have to contend with those conditions. It’s a reminder of the winter of 1971-72 when we had snow up to the eaves. We were able to tap the trees that year but almost needed a ladder to remove the spiles after the snow melted.

The next full moon is March 18 and this will be the “sugar” moon. Over the years we have noticed that sap flow does seem to some degree to follow the moon cycles. The Farmer’s Almanac forecasts fair weather and moderating temperatures the first week of March. So we expect to be making syrup by the first or second week of March.

Over the years we have found it’s best to be ready to start by the first of March. These traditional forecasting methods are right about 50% of the time. They have to be right, sometimes, to keep the folklore alive.

With the easing of Covid restrictions in Ontario our camp and trails will be open to the public. Capacity restrictions will apply indoors and social distancing outdoors. We are looking forward to once again welcoming visitors.

Joel Fortune and dog Maple out helping to tap maple trees at Fortune Farms sugarbush
Joel Fortune and Maple helping tap the trees

The 2022 Maple Season

Maple Season is fast approaching.   We thank everyone for your support throughout the pandemic. We have missed the opportunity to mingle with our visitors  and we hope this year  to be open this year with necessary Covid protocols.  Please follow our blog for regular updates as the season progresses.

This will be our 49th year making syrup on this farm.  Where do the years go? 

Our forests are proving to be resilient and with careful management continue to be healthy and vigorous despite the ice storms, windstorms, droughts and hordes of caterpillars that we have encountered over the years  Areas that were fields are now forests and seedlings have grown to become tappable trees.  It is truly remarkable and gratifying when we consider just how much our trees have grown over the years!

The long-range forecast looks “normal” so we will start tapping during the last week of February, and we typically gather our first runs of sap in the second week of March.  Plans change in a hurry if warm weather arrives.

Last year we introduced an online ordering system which worked well.  We invite you to place orders anytime for our 2022 crop online or by calling the farm at 613 256 5216. 

Fortune Farms in winter

Updates on Facebook

During the maple season, watch for updates on our Facebook page and here.

Fall colours at Fortune Farms

Fall has arrived and with it lots of rain which will be good for our maple trees. Fortunately,the gypsy moth does not like maple tree foliage and so our sugar bush was spared severe damage which was very intense on other tree species in this area.

With the warm weather and lots of sunshine this summer the trees should have produced lots of starch which will turn to sugar and hopefully result in extra sweet sap next spring.

The trees are just starting to turn colour with the soft maples showing quite a bit of red foliage. It’s a nice time to take a stroll through our sugar bush and our trails will be open this Saturday and Sunday and also next weekend for the Fall in Love with Maple sugar bush visitation event across Ontario.

Our camp will also be open with appropriate Covid protocols and we still have Amber and Dark syrup for sale.

Open 10 – 4pm for two weekends:

Sat, 25 Sept & Sun, 26 Sept
Sat, 2 Oct & Sun, 3 Oct

Your sweet tooth doesn’t have to wait until spring!

Fall in Love with Maple at Ontario sugarbushes from September 25 – October 3, 2021.

Fortune Farms will be open on the both weekends during this time.

Season Over for 2021

Warm May-like weather seems to have arrived early this year. Such a contrast from last year when we had a long, drawn out and cool March and April.

Tuesday was our last day of making syrup for this year. The maple buds are now well advanced and the trees are taking on a greenish hue. The frogs are singing, another sure sign that spring is here.

The Wood frog in the picture was spotted in our beaver pond by Jim Robertson our local photographer.

We have had a fair season with production a bit above our long term average. Hopefully enough to fill our orders until next year.

Our camp is open daily from 9 to 4 with the usual Covid restrictions. We also have curbside pickup if preferred.

Easter Weekend

The maple season is winding down. However, there will be several degrees of frost on Saturday night so we may have a final run of sap on Easter Sunday.

Then the weather turns warm, the tree buds will begin to swell, and that will mark the end of the season. This past week, with the warm weather, the syrup continued to darken so we now have an ample supply of Dark and Very Dark syrup.

The migrant birds continue to arrive at the farm. The resident Phoebe is back and nest building. A friend was able to take a very good picture of our resident bluebird and along with his mate they are also busy nest building. It’s amazing how these birds find their way back each year.

Our camp is open this weekend from 9 to 4 each day. The new lockdown rules in Ontario do not affect our operation as we are a food establishment. There is a limit on the number allowed access to the camp at one time.

A blue bird
Birds of spring