The nights are still frosty and snow still blankets the ground, but the daytime sun has a special warmth. Icicles drip as they melt, streams begin to run and birds sing a happy song. It’s that in-between time that nestles uncomfortably between winter’s harsh embrace and the invigorating, life-giving arrival of spring.
What do we call this season? Historically, it’s been known throughout Ontario as ‘sugar time’, when maple trees were tapped for their sweet sap. At one time an important yearly rite, the harvesting of maple sap and production of sweet, sticky maple syrup remains alive and well at White Meadow Farms in Niagara.
White Meadow Farms
“This is our farm’s 80th anniversary, and we’ve been tapping maple trees—for hobby or commercial use—almost as long,” explains Ann Bering, who owns and operates the farm with her husband, Murray. “Our son, Richard has become involved as well, representing a fourth generation of the family on the farm.” White Meadow Farms dates back to 1937 when Adam Bering, grandfather of current-owner Murray Bering, settled on 200 acres of farmland and forest to raise dairy cows and crops. Murray’s mother would fondly gaze out the kitchen windows and soak in the beauty of meadows that would burst into a sea of white each summer with the blooming of wild daisies. And so, the farm was named White Meadows.
As a lark, Adam began to harvest sap and boil maple syrup in 1940. It was just for family consumption—ideal at a time when, as a result of World War Two, sugar was strictly rationed and very expensive—but Adam was taken. Then, inexplicably, the Bering family let the tradition wither.
That changed around 1990 when Murray and his wife, Ann, began to again tap some of the farm’s maple trees and boil maple syrup on their stove-top. It was a modest beginning for what would, over the next twenty years, develop into one of the largest maple harvesting operations in Niagara.
“We were bit with the bug,” Ann laughs. “I love the idea of taking a product from nature, something that is basically just water, and transforming it into a variety of products. It’s a fascinating procedure. You start from the same place, but end at different places depending on your process.”
In due course, the stove-top gave way to a commercial evaporator in a dedicated sugaring house, increasing production. Pails were no longer hung from trees, replaced instead with the modern and more efficient pipeline system. The Maple Sweet Shop was built for the retail of maple syrup and maple related products. And finally, the Bering’s began to take curious visitors into the sugar bush to learn about the ages old process of maple harvesting.
Finally, by 2014, what began as a hobby became the focus of White Meadows Farms as the Bering’s had sold their dairy herd and no longer grew crops. Today, there are 5000 taps on the 60-acre farm along with three adjacent properties, making White Meadow Farms a medium-sized maple operation for Ontario. Some 5000 guests visit each year.
Maple sap requires frosty nights and warm days, so tours start March 4th and run every weekend throughout the month, daily during March break, and last until the first weekend in April, which corresponds with Ontario Maple Weekend.
Dressed warmly, with snow crunching underfoot, visitors hop aboard a tractor-pulled wagon and are taken deep into the sugar bush to experience the process of harvesting maple sap. The ride last but a few brief minutes, but transports you centuries into the past because, upon climbing from the wagon, visitors find themselves in recreated native and pioneer camps where a guide describes the history of the maple syrup production.
Woodland natives had been collecting maple sap for centuries before the first white man even appeared on the shores of the New World. Their method of making maple sugar was relatively crude, but ingenious nonetheless. Knives were used to gash a maple tree in a slanted direction, cutting through the bark into the soft wood beneath. They inserted a wooden chip into this wound, over which the leaking sap would run, eventually dropping drip by painfully-slow drip into birch pails or hollowed out logs resting on the ground below. It was then boiled in earthenware pots or by continuously dropping hot stones into a sap-filled trough.
Early Ontario settlers recognized the value of tapping maple trees and set aside several weeks each spring to harvest the sap. Unlike today, comparatively little maple syrup was actually produced; instead, settlers used the sap for manufacturing beer, vinegar, and most importantly, maple sugar. In fact, a typical family would probably make between 100 and 300 pounds of sugar annually.
The European way of making maple sugar was more sophisticated and on a far larger scale than that practiced by aboriginal people, but the process was essentially the same. Gashes were made into trees, into which round and hollowed-out spouts (originally wooden, but later metal) were inserted an inch into the wood. Metal pails were placed below to collect the dripping sap. It was then boiled in large iron or copper kettles. It was a vital time of year, so boil res were often kept burning for weeks on end as the farmer raced to collect sap from several hundred tapped trees before the brief season ended.
As the 20th century dawned, fewer and fewer farmers devoted much time to maple sugar manufacturing. Cane sugar was becoming cheaper and was now readily available even in rural Ontario. The harvesting of maple sap, once a yearly rite for most farmers, became increasingly rare.
Nevertheless, there are still several dozen commercial sugar bushes around Ontario—among them, White Meadow Farms— where the tradition is held onto as a quintessentially Canadian celebration of the spring.
This history is told in detail during a guided tour at White Meadow Farms. One also learns that not all maple syrup is the same .
“Maple syrup is graded by color. The darker the color, the stronger the avour is,” Ann Bering explains. “As the season goes later, the darker and stronger avoured the sap syrup will be—the sap itself looks exactly the same, its only through boiling that the color appears. Taste the different colors and see the difference.”
During the tour, you’ll visit the Taffy Shack. Little has changed since the days when pioneer children crowded dad’s pot, waiting for him to drizzle hot syrup on the snow for them to roll onto their sticks. Here, visitors can sample Taffy-on-Snow for themselves. Also, step into the Lumberjack Shack, pick a partner, and test your skill with the two-man saws once wielded by lumberjacks. The slice of wood cut, branded with the year, makes for a unique keep-sake of a fun day spent in the bush.
Keepsakes of another, more avourful kind can be had at the Maple Sweet Store, the farm’s on-site gift shop.
“The Maple Sweet Store sells syrup, of course, but also a wide range of gourmet items because everything is made better with maple,” enthuses Ann Bering. “We have home- made maple vinegar, BBQ sauces, jellies, salad dressing, maple butter (100% maple and completely dairy free), maple kettle corn made with homegrown popping corn, and butter tarts made exceptional with pure maple syrup.”
While White Meadow Farms sells most of their product on-site, they do have an online store and in addition sell some syrup in local retailers.
The Bering’s appreciate the bounty of the land and so conservation is prevalent in every step of their operation. Energy efficient LED lights in The Maple Sweet Shop have reduced yearly electricity consumption. Instead of using the oil to heat the evaporator as most modern operations do, they’ve opted to continue with the traditional method of burning wood culled from dead or over- crowded trees in the woodlot. Finally, to further cut their carbon imprint, the Bering’s installed a solar heating system.
An iconic Canadian tradition, maple syrup harvesting lives on at Pelham’s White Meadow Farms, auguring in the spring- time season in sweet fashion and reminding us of eras past when the harvest was a vital yearly ritual. Grab a jacket and toque, head out to the sugar bush, and enjoy the first tentative taste of spring.