FARM 23 - Sidders and team make the maple syrup trek every year
BY SCOTT STEPHENSON
Every year, when the time comes, Roy Sidders leaves his northern Ontario home and heads south to a bush in Belgrave, intent on extracting sweet tree secrets and distilling them down into one of our nation’s tastiest treats. That’s right - it’s maple syrup season again, and Sidders took time out of his busy schedule to give The Citizen a tour of his unique syrup-making operation.
The day was warm and sunny, and the snow crunchy underfoot as Sidders guided me down the hill to a low point of the operation to check out the vacuum pump, one of the tour’s many highlights. On the way down, we passed a noisy generator, churning away. “We’re finally electrifying,” Sidders explained. “Within days, this noise will stop, and there’ll be an electric motor running that thing.” One of Sidders’ syrup-producing partners, Paul Cook, is an electrician and he’s been making a few much needed updates to their set-up. “That vacuum pump is 34 years old. We’ve been doing this thing here for 34 years.”
While we spoke, the vacuum made sounds reminiscent of a washing machine as it pumped in frothy sap, at this stage, looking clear and thin as water. The pump’s job is not to suck sap out of the trees, but to help pull it out of 10 kilometres of lines, which weave through the trees far into the bush. “It’s a big network, like the veins of a leaf.” The bush is on a hill, so gravity works in their favour. Sidders said there are two guys out there in the bush somewhere, checking all the lines for cracks and holes. Maple syrup production is a team effort, and this team is putting in a lot of effort.
Sidders hails from Southern Ontario originally, but found his way to Thunder Bay for university in 1978. He ended up staying in the north, and worked with the Ministry of Natural Resources for 31 years, starting out in the Forestry Department. Before retiring, he was the Far North Planning Manager, where he worked with over 30 Indigenous communities to make land-use plans from the Hudson Bay Coast to Timmins.
Even as a child, Sidders dreamed of making maple syrup. His thesis in university was a study on what tree characteristics might indicate whether it will provide good sap and sugar. Even after school, he was syrup-oriented. “My whole objective when I got a permanent job was, I want to try and run a maple syrup business.”
Once he finally started tapping trees, his background in forestry came in handy, guiding Sidders towards responsible stewardship of the bush. The tapped trees live on two farms: the first is George and Elizabeth Proctor’s farm, which is where the sugar shack is located. The other is the neighbouring Hopper bush. ”We try to be very careful with the trees.” That means never over-tapping trees, or tapping trees that are too young.
When Sidders’ kids Matthew, Neil, Scott and Troy were young, they were a big part of the operation. In the beginning, it could be a lot. “We used to commute with four children, my wife, Dianne, and I. Every year at March Break, we’d come down.”
Dianne, originally from Brussels, had lots of family in the area, and syrup season was always a good excuse to come visit. “It’s worked out phenomenally. The boys definitely got to know their grandparents incredibly well, and the grandparents back then were a big part of the operation… the memories are unbelievable.” The boys are older now, and have careers and families of their own, but they still love to help out as much as they can, and hope to keep things going.
When asked if anybody was planning to take over the business when he finally retires, Sidders laughed. “I try not to lay any pressure on anyone….”
The next stop on the tour involves climbing a ladder onto a platform to check sap levels in large, elevated stainless steel tanks, which in another life were surplus from the dairy industry.
From here on out, this syrup gets made the old-fashioned way, using the old-time science duo of gravity and fire. The tanks are feeding into the evaporator, located inside the sugar shack.
These days, the operation is also aided by friends from all over. When he can’t get down from Northern Ontario, Sidders’ friends who reside closer to the operation run things for him. Anybody who wants to help is welcome to help. “It’s a rite of passage in Canada,” said Sidders. “We’re making a real, traditional, incredible-tasting syrup.”
Today, most of those friends are manning the giant evaporator, which is the final stop of the tour. The air in the shack is warm and rich with a melange of aromas - not just the sweet smell of maple, but of slow-roasting meat and onions. The source of the savoury smell turns out to be wafting from a Crock-pot simmering nearby. Sidders is not just the syrup master, he’s also the chef of this operation. One of Sidders’ sap-happy friends is local farmer Robert Foreman, who supplied the rutabaga, carrots, potatoes and onions to the pot. All present agreed that rutabaga is a winter storage vegetable deserving of more love.
Sidders believes that their old-school evaporation method is why his syrup tastes so good. Most maple operations these days use reverse osmosis technology. Originally, reverse osmosis was developed as a desalination technology, which was then adapted for the syrup industry. He explained how it works. “You’ve got a membrane, and, under high pressure, it pushes sap at the membrane.” The water is pushed through, leaving the sugar behind, which means less water has to be evaporated during the cooking process. Raw sap is about two per cent sugar, and finished maple syrup is 66 per cent sugar. Less evaporating means faster production, fewer man hours, and, if you ask Sidders, less depth of flavour.
In this sugar shack, they evaporate the old fashioned way by chucking wood into the fiery maw of a multi-chambered monster of a machine. The interior of the door is red hot and looks spiked like an iron maiden. The evaporator dominates the shack, boiling about 160 gallons an hour. Plumes of steam rise over the building, and steam is also reserved to preheat the sap coming in from the vats outside. The fuel: cast offs from local lumber mills that make beams and floorboards. There are even piles of elongated, splintery scraps acquired from a nearby Amish baseball bat-making operation. All the excess water is evaporated this way, until the sap is close to the necessary 66 per cent sugar.
The evaporator gets so hot, there must be liquid running through the system at all times. If you run out of liquid, the heat of the fire will melt the steel of the machine. “If sap stops coming in, you’ve got less than five minutes to figure it out before you’ve got a big problem.”
Sidders’ operation is more labour-intensive than others that use the reverse osmosis method, but it’s a labour of love. “I used to always shut it down at midnight. Sometimes, I still have to… and I love all that too, but now, we generally shut down at about 7:30 and are home by 8.”
One of his favourite things about being in the bush at this time of year is the different perspective it offers. “People drive by a bush, especially in the winter, and they go ‘wow, there’s nothing going on. But in all these trees, there’s physiological processes going on… bushes are alive with activity, we just don’t think of it that way. Every year I get to see spring emerge.”
Winter may have come to an end this year, but for Sidders, syrup season is just getting started.