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Maple in the County festival returns

County maple syrup producers cheer the return of the popular festival.

By Sharon Harrison
“Maple in the County is back!” announced Ron Hubbs to a jubilant crowd at a media event announcing the return of the County’s largest festival and harbinger of spring.

Mark your calendars for the weekend of March 25 and 26 because Maple in the County is back after what feels like a very long three year break due to the COVID-19 pandemic, noted Hubbs, chairperson for the festival maple syrup producers, at the host venue, Fosterholm Farms on County Road 18.

The general consensus by local maple syrup producers promises a good year for the cherished liquid gold, and good news for those who savour this first harvest of the year.

Not only did sap season start early this year, but the quality of the production so far is being described as exceptional.

Members from each of this year’s five participating festival sugarbushes shared a few words about their operations and what they will be offering at the festival. They include Fosterholm Farms (Clifford, Dean and Rylan Foster), Vader’s Maple Syrup (Todd and Sue Vader), LOHA Farms (Chris and Jesse Armstrong), Roblin’s Maple Syrup (Phil and Bittany Roblin, and Sweetwater Cabin and Hubbs Sugarbush (Ron and Janice Hubbs).

While Hubbs acknowledges how the Maple in the County group is a lot smaller this year, he demonstrated how the number five is a significant number.

“COVID caused us some tough times in the group, but if you think about it, a maple leaf has five lobes and there are five producers in this year’s event, so I think that’s significant. We’ve struggled in our group, and part of the group thought we should be going ahead with the festival in the past,” said Hubbs. “These five producers here stood steadfast in that we had to put the County’s health and well-being ahead of our own profits, and I’m proud that we did.”

Also present to provide support to the County festival were Bay of Quinte MP Ryan Williams, Adam Bramburger (representing Bay of Quinte MPP Todd Smith who was attending an energy convention in Houston), Prince Edward County Mayor Steve Ferguson, Athol councillor Sam Branderhorst, and Steve Needman, president of Quinte local of the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers’ Association.

Hubbs also provided interesting information about all things maple, as well as some fascinating historical facts about the tradition’s rich history.

While East Lake has always been a traditional maple syrup making area, he said Prince Edward County has been the hub of the maple industry in this province.

With offerings of candies, Hubbs went on to explain the connection between LifeSavers candy and maple syrup, noting how the original recipe called for stirred maple sugar, rather than cane sugar.

“With maple syrup production peaking in 1860, and the American Civil War just starting to break out, people in the northern States and Canada didn’t like supporting the sugar cane industry,” explains Hubbs, “because it was made on the backs of slaves, so they preferred maple sugar over cane sugar.”

He said, not only has Maple in the County been a festival that has been copied by many others across Ontario, but it was also the first festival that was a driving festival from farm-to-farm-to-farm.

“It became pretty popular, pretty quickly, and it always has been.”

Not only is maple syrup known as Canada’s oldest agricultural crop, but it is the first agricultural crop harvested each year, Hubbs said.

Vader’s Maple Syrup has been making syrup for more than 100 years, and Sue Vader expects this to be a great year for production which started early, on Feb. 13.

“We’ve had a lot of ‘golden’ as well which is really great as that’s what we use to make all our taffy and maple leaves,” she said. “It will be a nice year because people have been missing the festival, so they are looking forward to getting outside and connecting with people, and that’s what it’s all about.”

Fosterholm Farms’ Dean Foster demonstrates to MP Ryan Williams and his children, how to insert a tap.

Bay of Quinte MP Ryan Williams, with his three small children in tow, described Maple in the County, and its successful 20th year, as an incredibly important event, as well as one celebrating the start of spring.

“It is a true family festival celebrating farming in Prince Edward County and is certainly one of the best in Canada,” said Williams. “It supports what I see as farming, it’s agriculture, it’s the heart of the County; this is the premier, it is the best, the most impressive maple festival in all of Canada.”

Williams also spoke to the positive environmental sustainability of the maple syrup industry.

“This is the most environmentally sustainable net zero, it’s actually minus net zero, agriculture industry in all of Canada. You are actually giving more oxygen back to the planet, it’s incredibly sustainable.”

Steve Needham, president of Quinte local of the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers’ Association made the trip from his own sugar bush in O’Hara Mills, near Madoc.

“This is our 20th year for Maple in the County and that is a tremendous milestone for any festival,” said Needham, who added how he can recall when Maple in the County first started.

He also recollects how difficult it was for maple syrup producers everywhere and the industry in general when the COVID-19 pandemic struck March 11, 2020.

“One thing about this industry, we do work together, we are farmers or business people and we know we have to be diverse,” said Needham. “When things are thrown at us, you have to change and farmers are great at that, and when the weather is unpredictable, you make changes to survive.”

He said, many producers were fortunate with farm gate sales and roadside stands during the pandemic, and along with advertising, saw more online orders.

“Most people in Ontario I had spoken to had sold their crop, but in a totally different way than it would have been traditionally,” he said.

Needman said of the whole maple industry, about 60 per cent of the maple syrup sold in Ontario is made by Ontario producers.

“That’s how much of a demand there is for maple, and it has grown; sales are brisk and Ontario does not produce enough syrup for the demand of maple syrup that’s out there.”

Dean Foster, with Fosterholm Farms, spoke to the family involvement in the business with his dad, Clifford, having just turned 92, and son Rylan who is forging his place in the family-run business, which will mark 100 years next year.

“Rylan has been the push in the maple industry for us, he wasn’t happy with the way we were doing things, you know how young people are,” explains Foster. “He put a new system in here a few years ago that doubled our yield on the same amount of ground, so pretty impressed with that endeavour that he took and he’s still the push behind maple.”

Foster reports they’ve had a great start to the season this year even with the early start.

“It’s kind of mixed up this year because February was pretty warm and now it’s cold in March, but we set a pretty high goal as we want to try to make two litres of finished product of maple syrup for every tap we put in the tree.”

According to Foster, they are already at one litre per tap.

The impressive-looking evaporator and workings at Fosterholm Farms.

“The quality has been exceptional, it’s almost all ‘golden’ which is the most difficult to make for most producers because it requires cleanliness and cold weather and the ability to process the sap quickly, and we are pretty fortunate to be here at this point in the season.”

Athol councillor Sam Branderhorst enjoyed the event with her two young children, noting how the maple syrup season is special because of the memories it creates.

“Maple season was a way for me to able to connect with my grandfather when I was going out in the sugarbushes and being able to bond with an individual that I had a hard time with because he wasn’t chatty,” she recalls. “It was a time I could sit back, walk through, hear about the tapping of the trees, and looking at the sap in the buckets and getting to bond with a man I had a really hard time bonding with and now I have those special memories forever in my heart.”

She said the best part of Maple in the County are the producers and farmers who are opening up their properties to the general public so that everyone can share in these same memories, “and come together as a family and really create their own stories that they can share for generations on.”

“Many people think agriculture is tractors in a field, and red and white bank barns on the side filled with a variety of animals,” she said. “It’s events like this that show agriculture is so much more than just that.”

“It is a respect for the land and Mother Nature, it’s seeing these hard-working producers going out no matter what the weather is, no matter the timing, nothing works to our plan, it all works out whenever the season decides it’s time to start, but you always see all these producers and farmers out, they are checking the temperature morning and night to see where it’s going to go, hopeful, and full of anticipation for it which is always neat to see.”

Janice Hubbs, with Sweetwater Cabin and Hubbs Sugarbush said, “We look forward to getting caught up with people we’ve missed seeing in the last three years as we know people like to get outside and visit with family, neighbours and friends”.

Maple in the County runs Saturday, March 25 and Sunday, March 26 at the five participating sugarbushes noted above, along with many other participating businesses throughout the County.

Some are celebrating all month, for example, The Waring House in Picton, and the Waupoos Estates Winery  are hosting maple infused menus every weekend in March.

Every Saturday and Sunday, the winery is also welcoming guests to their sugar shack, offering taffy on snow and other maple goodies, maple cotton candy and visits to feed the barn animals.

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