Couple can’t see the forest for the sap

Tapping birch trees | Producing syrup seen as sustainable living

GRAND MARAIS, Man. — Stones and tree stumps litter the winding trail that an all-terrain vehicle takes through a birch forest from which a unique taste of Canada is extracted each year.

Birch syrup is a small but growing operation for Rory and Glenda Hart, who are among fewer than a dozen producers in Canada.

“It doesn’t taste like anything you’ve ever had,” Glenda said of the three varieties of birch syrup produced at the Canadian Birch Company.

They plan to increase the operation to 3,000 trees from 1,150.

“We don’t want to decimate the forest, but leave it as a living sustainable place,” Rory said of their 240 acre property at the southern end of Lake Winnipeg.

“If you cut it down, you have the one use,” he said.

The Harts believe expanding the operation is the way to go, given high labour costs, labour intensive gathering and processing and the challenges that come with working in the bush.

They invested $200,000 in commercial equipment that is set up in a processing centre dubbed the Sugar Shack. It includes a reverse osmosis machine and high-end evaporator in addition to pails, tubing and a tractor for hauling sap to the plant.

About 120 litres of sap are required to make one litre of syrup, compared to a 40 to one ratio for maple syrup.

“That’s an awful lot of gathering, an awful lot of trees and an awful lot of work,” said Glenda.

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This year, their eight person tapping crew had just 21 days to bring in the sap, down from four weeks the previous year because of the quick winter melt.

Pink ribbons pinpoint trees 20 centimetres wide that are ready to tap.

The Harts’ products include amber, light amber and dark syrup, which can be used to make hamburgers, venison, salad dressings, yams and dessert toppings.

Marketing is key.

The Harts sell their products at farmers markets and Winnipeg stores and hotels and through their website, www.canadianbirchcompany.ca.

They attended the SIAL international food trade show in Toronto this spring to look for new business.

“The market is there, you have to find out where it is and who to go to to do it for you,” Rory said.

Added Glenda: “It doesn’t matter how good your product is if no one knows about it. You’d just be sitting on a whole bunch of product.”

The couple, now in their 50s, see the enterprise as a retirement project. Rory works as a locomotive engineer and Glenda is a special education teacher.

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Both enjoy the outdoor life.

“It’s hard work but doesn’t feel like hard work,” Glenda said during a tour of the forest. “When out here, life all makes sense.”

Glenda said coyotes, black bears, mink, deer and rabbits abound here, but the operation has not been affected by predators.

“When you start going into the bush, the animals take a vacation,” she said.

Rory said they will continue to conduct studies into the productivity of smaller trees and seek funding to find more efficient harvesting methods.

The Harts received government support after outlining plans to study smaller trees and develop syrups and a sap drink. They receive $20,000 a year for two years and pick up half the cost of expenditures such as lab costs, wages and supplies.

Daryl Domitruk, director of agriculture, innovation and adaptation for Manitoba Agriculture at Morden, said the Harts received funding from the former Growing Forward program, a federal-provincial initiative.

“The intention is to support innovation aimed at production agriculture and value-added agriculture. Canadian Birch is part of that,” he said.

Domitruk said food processing is a significant sector in Manitoba, which is best known internationally for its french fries and pork.

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There are more than 250 companies in the value-added food processing industry, and 25 percent of the province’s manufacturing output coming from the sector.