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Gary Backlund hooks up a pipeline to bigleaf maple trees on his Ladysmith, B.C., property. (Katherine Backlund)
Gary Backlund hooks up a pipeline to bigleaf maple trees on his Ladysmith, B.C., property. (Katherine Backlund)

Local foods

B.C. bigleaf maple syrup finding its niche Add to ...

The 100 Mile Diet and slow-food movements are boosting interest in bigleaf maple syrup produced on Canada's West Coast.

Until a decade ago, few in British Columbia had given serious thought to producing syrup from the bigleaf maple. In fact, the prevailing wisdom was that it couldn't be done.

The bigleaf maple is a different species from the sugar maple of Eastern Canada. There are subtle differences in the sap and how it can be collected. Bigleaf sap apparently has a lower sugar content and the syrup made from it can vary from a golden glint to a dark chocolate hue.

"Why we can make a living at it now is because we're into niche markets and local foods," Gary Backlund, a Ladysmith, B.C., maple syrup producer, said from the crest of his 29-hectare property on central Vancouver Island that offers a view of hectares of maple groves along the harbour.

In 2004, Mr. Backlund co-authored a book, Bigleaf Sugaring, with his daughter, Katherine. About 2,000 copies have been sold - another sign of the interest in bigleaf maple syrup.

Dolly and Cordell Sandquist also discovered how far that niche can extend when they were invited this spring to supply some of their bigleaf syrup to a 100 Mile dinner at a restaurant in Woodinville in Washington state. Their small syrup operation fits well with the Country Treasures B&B the retirees operate on their three hectares at Cobble Hill about 50 kilometres north of Victoria.

"The breakfast usually has something to do with maple syrup," Mr. Sandquist said.

Most of the few dozen producers on Vancouver Island are hobbyists such as Steve Titus. He grew up thinking one could not make maple syrup on the Island.

About seven years ago, he chanced across a notice in a local newspaper for a course on how to make it. Aware of the 100 or so maples on the 3.5 hectares he and wife Laura Ferreira inhabit near Cowichan Bay, about 55 kilometres north of Victoria, Mr. Titus thought he'd sign up. Unfortunately, the class was fully booked. Rather than wait until next year though, Mr. Titus sent away for a mail-order maple syrup kit and began experimenting himself.

Others are trying to make a business of it. At Glenora Farms near Duncan, about 60 kilometres north of Victoria, Lawrence Lampson has collected as much as 1,000 litres of sap in one day and has set up commercial-quality evaporators to process it. The syrup sells quickly at the farm's store, says Lynda Phelps, the farm's business manager.

"We have stores in Victoria wanting to buy wholesale from us, but we just can't produce enough," Ms. Phelps said.

Demand for Vancouver Island maple syrup outstrips supply. That became apparent this February at the third annual Bigleaf Maple Syrup Festival in Duncan, when the syrup sold out. A 250-millilitre bottle of bigleaf syrup typically sells for $20 compared with $8.69 for the same-size supermarket-variety bottle.

"In our first year, we were expecting to have a few hundred people attend and 1,400 showed up," said Aimee Greenaway, curator at the Forest Discovery Centre where the festival takes place. "Then there's been more than 2,000 for the last two events, which is about our maximum capacity for an event like that."

Mr. Backlund, one of the organizers, estimated that the festival took in $20,000 to $25,000, including $5,000 to $10,000 in syrup sales.

"My guess is right now we're harvesting about 60,000 litres [of sap]a year," Mr. Backlund said. By his calculation, that made about 1,200 litres of syrup. At that, bigleaf maple syrup accounts for a tiny fraction of Canada's total maple syrup production, which was valued at $117-million in 2006, according to Agriculture Canada.

"This activity could provide a supplemental income for farmers, private forest landowners and entrepreneurs in the coastal forest region where bigleaf maple is found," concluded Deirdre Bruce in her 2008 University of Victoria master's thesis on bigleaf maple sap production.

Nanaimo producer Ed Redlin thinks it has the potential to develop into a cottage industry. "I travel on the Island a lot and I'm always looking at patches of maple trees. There are huge patches not being utilized. I think there is an opportunity."

Mr. Redlin has permission to collect sap from 350 to 400 maples on Nanaimo airport property. He then transports the sap to his home about 20 minutes away on the north side of the city.

"It's an awful lot of work, but it's fun," said Mr. Redlin, who estimated he spent $6,000 to $7,000 to set up his sugar shack and two evaporators and purchase other equipment.

It's energy-intensive work, not the least being the time and firewood required to boil down the sap. It can take up to 100 litres of sap to make one litre of syrup, Mr. Redlin says. Some trees can take more than one spile, the plastic or metal spout inserted into a small hole drilled into the trunk and through which the sap flows into a plastic tube connected to a container. Because bigleaf maple syrup has about half the sugar content of Eastern maple syrup, it takes twice the number of spiles - about 2,000 - to make the collection economically feasible, Mr. Redlin says.

However, there are about a dozen sapsuckers, as they call themselves, who each harvest more than 1,000 litres of sap a year, according to Harold Macy, the person credited with stimulating interest in bigleaf maple syrup.

Mr. Macy, who operates a 400-hectare woodlot at Courtenay, first became interested in the possibilities of bigleaf maple syrup in the mid 1990s when he was the forester at the University of British Columbia's Oyster River Research Station near Campbell River on Vancouver Island.

"When people told me it was impossible, that I couldn't do it, that made me try even harder," Mr. Macy said.

Mr. Macy developed a master woodland manager course that included a component on non-timber resources, such as maple syrup. Among his students was Mr. Backlund, who later worked with Mr. Macy and others to devise the techniques behind making bigleaf maple syrup.

The ideal conditions for bigleaf maple sap are the freezes and thaws that punctuate the island winter, producers say. Production, though, dropped off this past year because of an unseasonably warm winter.

Does that mean climate change will stunt the growth of the bigleaf syrup industry? Mr. Backlund doubts it. "It was just a disaster year, really," Mr. Backlund said. "But that's like farming. You have your good and your bad. And when it's really good, we're not complaining."

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