Wednesday, March 24, 2010

As Local as it Gets: Garden Planning

My blog is probably going to change direction a bit this spring/summer, as the source just a whole lot closer. I was lucky enough to find a home to rent just outside of the city on 35 acres of land. The home owners have kindly allowed me a very large space for my first garden. The land that we are on has always been farmed organically, from what I hear, although there is currently no farming being done. It has not been used to produce food, save for the tiny garden plot behind the house, in a long, long time.
I have never had a garden before... well, that's not true. Every summer, my sisters and I would eagerly make our way over to our weed strewn, dried out little plot on an island near Lake of the Woods, where we spent our summers. Every year we would plant a vast array of vegetables and then promptly lose interest. Once in a while we'd check out the garden, find it overtaken or dried out, snack on the few morsels of edible stuff, and then continue to play somewhere else. We didn't understand the work that went into a garden then. Next to our little plot was my Auntie Jean's garden. Her garden was always thriving and bursting with vegetables. Sometimes we'd even sneak a garden pea or two and run away giggling. I think we always thought that Auntie Jean must have been in cahoots with Mother Nature. How else did her garden always look so good and ours, so poor, in comparison?
Eventually, we gave up. All that digging and sweating and impatient waiting never produced anything more than a tiny salad, which we'd all fight over. But this year promises to be different. I'm very excited about the prospects of self-sufficiency. Maybe I'm hoping that there's a little Auntie Jean in me too.

Eager as ever, I started ordering seed catalogs in the fall. I remember reading Barbara Kingsolver's awe as she pored over her seed catalogs. I now understand that feeling. So many varieties... Heirloom. Certified organic. Hybrids. Early harvests. Late harvests. It's all so overwhelming to someone who's admittedly never done this before.
One of my first big purchases was the Encyclopaedia of Natural Insect and Disease Control. After making a list of everything that I wanted in my garden, I diligently looked up each one (honestly, I've gotten through only three) and made notes. Who knew there were so many insects who hanker for just one vegetable? For example, the cabbage is susceptible to a plethora of hungry critters: aphids, the cabbage looper, the cabbage looper moth, the cabbage maggot, the cabbageworm, the army worm, the imported cabbage worm (like a homegrown one wasn't enough!), the vegetable weevil and the mole cricket. The list, quite literally, goes on and on and on. Never mind that the property is home to a fairly large herd of deer, rabbits, skunks, a red fox and coyotes. I've even seen a wild turkey out here. How do I protect my garden from all of them? And, ultimately, is it fair to keep them out? Aren't they, too, a part of the natural world? But then, is my garden? These are all questions that niggled away while I plotted and planned.

To be continued...

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Heritage Maple Products- A Visit to the Sugar Bush

Last week I was lucky enough to be taken on a tour of a sugar bush by Leon Martin. Leon owns Heritage Maple Products and sells maple syrup at the Guelph Farmers Market year-round. I had asked him in the fall if I could come out to the sugar bush for a tour and I'm really glad that I did.

It was a beautifully sunny day, but snow still clung stubbornly to the ground. My friend, Tanya, and I met Leon out at his friend's sugar bush somewhere near Elmira, Ontario. As we drove the country roads, filled with that overwhelming sense of freedom that you get only when you leave the city, I tried to imagine what the operation would look like. Now maybe I've read one too many Laura Ingalls Wilder books, but my idea of a maple syrup operation was a little romantic and not at all realistic. I had pictured wooden pails hanging from trees and a huge bonfire in the middle of the bush. A large, cast iron cauldron full of sticky sap hung over the fire and was being boiled down into maple syrup. Men with grizzled beards and diseveled hair were talking excitedly about this year's prospects and the air was filled with the sweetest scent...  Boy, am I a dreamer. When we did find the bush, there were no pails, no grizzled beards and no bonfire. Instead, what we saw was a much more sophisticated operation than that of the pioneer days.
We had chosen a good day to visit since it had been frosty the night before, but was promising to be quite warm in the afternoon. Temperatures of 5-6 degrees above zero during the day, coupled with temperatures below zero at night (between -2 to -3), are most ideal. The cold hinders fermentation, while the sun's warmth causes the tree's pores to dilate, releasing sap.

Small taps are inserted into in 1/2 inch deep holes in the trunk of the tree, about 4 feet from the ground. Plastic tubing is attached to the tap, and runs from one tree to another, eventually, running into a main holding tank. No more than 6 to 8 trees are tapped per line. The bush ends up looking like a maze of colour, twisting and turning until it reaches its final destination. The lines are all under vacuum and if you look closely enough, you can actually see the sweet nectar as it moves along. The lines end at the transfer pump. Its job is to pump the sap into the main tank, which can hold up to 3000 gallons of sap. I climbed the ladder on the side of the tank and had a good look inside. I was surprised to see how clear and thin the sap was. From the main tank, the sap goes through a filtration process by means of reverse osmosis. Reverse osmosis is the very same technology used in some homes to remove impurities from tap water. Since only pure water can get through the filters what remains is concentrated sap. At this point, 75-80% of the water removed. So sophisticated, these filters can process 600-800 gallons per hour, depending on how many RO membranes are being used.
Once filtered, the concentrated sap is transferred to yet another holding tank. This one is smaller in size, holding up to 800 gallons of concentrate. When there is enough sap to process, it flows to the evaporation unit. Again, this is no pioneer operation; the evaporation unit is very high-tech! The evaporating unit is situated over a huge fire box. The fire heats the sap in the unit, which produces steam. This steam heats a slanted, metal surface situated directly above the sap. The concentrated sap is then pumped up to the top of the unit where it flows down this metal surface, causing further evaporation. The system has a series of floats which regulate the sap levels. They open automatically when the pan calls for more liquid. Once the operation really gets going, this process is constant. From the front pan, the concentrate is moved into a second pan, called the flue pan. The bottom of this pan is rippled with peaks that rise about 8 inches high. This rippling effect creates more surface area on both the fire side, as well as the sap side, allowing for even more evaporation.
Finally, the concentrate moves to another tank which blows air into the sap through a pipe system, causing the sap to move vigourously. Moving sap releases more steam  than sap that is sitting still. At this point, the sap is now maple syrup and, from here, it moves to the finishing pan. The finishing pan's heat is regualted and once it reaches its desired temperature, the syrup is released into the bucket below. The syrup must be filtered before it can be consumed though. From the bucket, it passes through a stainless steel pump and then through a filter press. Finally, it travels to the hot packing tank.It is now ready for packaging.

From tree to container, maple syrup production is a much more complicated process than I had ever imagined. Gone are the days of bonfires and buckets. With Canada being the world's top producer of maple products, it's no wonder a quicker and more efficient method was created.
Being a naturally curious person, I really wanted to see what a maple syrup operation was all about. If you too are curious about maple syrup production, come check out the Maple Syrup Festival in Elmira, ON. on March 27th, 2010!

If you are interested in purchasing syrup from Leon, you can find him at the Guelph Farmers Market. He can also be contacted by telephone at (519) 503-2753.

2010 Prices:
4L- $63.00
1L- $22.00
500 mL- $13.00
250 mL- $8.50
100 mL- $5.25

Light syrup: delicate and subtle
Medium: middle of the road
Dark: Strong and robust in flavour

Stay tuned for more on maple syrup...