Bob Staples began his Maple Syrup production career at the tender age of 10 when his father allowed him to tap 12 trees along the driveway of their family farm. He is the 7th generation of Staples to continue this tradition ever since James Staples of Gorey in Ireland arrived in Cavan in 1813. At that time James was on a reconnaissance mission for the family to investigate the potential for a new life in Canada. Among his many observations, he noted the abundance of wild strawberries and sweet sap as some of the culinary treats afforded by this area. His family joined him shortly thereafter and settled on what is now Highway 7A just west of the Tapley ¼ Line where 2 of 3 brothers still live.
Today Bob and his family tap 3700 trees, the majority of which are on the two Staples family farms on either side of the highway. Like any agricultural product, production from year to year depends on the weather. In order to tap running sap, the daytime temperature must rise to between 4-6 degrees Celsius with nighttime temperatures ranging from minus 3 to minus 5. These conditions can arrive as early as Valentine’s Day, and last for up to 6 weeks. Normally, however, the season runs for 2-4 weeks ending when the tree buds begin to open.
As the sun was shining brightly and the previous night had been cold and clear, this past Saturday afternoon the sap was running and all systems were in full production with family members boiling, bottling and supervising production at the Staples Sugar Shack. With a storm in the forecast, Sunday was expected to be a day of rest. Sap activity is sensitive to barometric pressure so it was not expected to be running the following day.
In the past, Bob used a wood burning stove to boil the sap to make syrup like his ancestors, but he has ramped up production significantly since his retirement from dairy farming in 1998. The Staples now rely on a combination of reverse osmosis and an oil-fired furnace to reduce 40 litres of sap to 1 litre of maple syrup. Each tree yields between 35 and 50 litres of sap per season so in a good year the Staples produce 3700 litres of liquid gold. Their products are available in local retail outlets including Foodland and Bear Essentials in Millbrook, at the Peterborough Farmers’ Market and at the family farm. It is also carried by Peterborough restaurants such as Brio Gusto and Parkhill on Hunter.
Jill explains that the grade and colour of syrup depends on how early in the season it is produced. The pale, Light Grade syrup is the first to be produced, and as the season extends the colour darkens. This is because as the ground around the trees thaws, the sap begins to pull more nutrients from the soil, reflecting in the sap colour.
All of the Staples farms are organic, including cousin Barry’s on the Morton Line. For their maple harvest they use modern spiles which are smaller and therefore easier on the trees and used for only one year. When the season ends, their miles of tubing is disinfected with alcohol which is only flushed out when the next season begins in order to protect it from drying out. Their maple product is federally inspected which means it is both tested and graded according to federal standards and includes ingredient and nutritional labels. They are also members of the traceability program identifying their farm as the source of their products which means they can track each bottle by batch.
The care they give to their maple harvest has been recognized by their peers in the industry. In 1995, on a whim, Bob decided to enter their syrup into competition in the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto. However, they were disqualified because they submitted their sample in the wrong container. Not easily deterred, the next year they tried again and won top prize as the World Champion in Maple Syrup, an honour they have earned 4 times since then. Last year their Light Grade syrup earned a perfect score and won Reserve Champion at the fair.
For maple syrup lovers, there is good news on the nutritional front – there is growing evidence that maple syrup is a healthy sweetener, one that can actually regulate blood sugar. Research at the University of Rhode Island suggests that the product also contains anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant characteristics that could be beneficial for sufferers of diabetes and Alzheimer’s . This is not to say that we can begin calling maple syrup a health food, but when looking for a sweetener, maple syrup has many advantages. Maybe we can feel a little less guilt when we indulge in pancakes for breakfast- no Aunt Jemima’s please!