By Hetty Stuart
Faith, family, farmland: a perfect trio to which both Steve and Val Bachert of Blyth Creek Maple Farm have dedicated themselves fully. And by farmland, in particular, there are the 1,000 or so maple trees that produce the sugary goodness that they harvest and process each spring: maple sap.
A busy couple, Val is a part-time nurse, and Steve owns and operates a fencing company, in addition to farming - and making maple syrup. Their children are involved too - Courtney has done a great job working on the website, photos, and marketing while Nathan and his wife Sarah are involved in the day-to-day process of work. When Steve’s father owned the farm 59 years ago, he dabbled in harvesting maple sap, and Steve furthered his work by producing the syrup commercially ten years ago.
“The bush where sap is harvested is gravel-bottomed, and the trees grow lower in the area,” explains Steve. “The syrup is more amber and golden in colour, and the flavour is more distinctly maple, a flavour that is stronger than it is sweet.” We taste the various samples of smooth goodness and nod in agreement. His eyes twinkle, as he declares, “Granite bedrock makes the most winning syrup.” We quaff another sample and keep agreeing — the stuff is absolutely delicious!
Restrictions placed upon the farm due to COVID-19 allowed only about a third of guests to come through the farm and the tour. “But, it was still better than the first year that Covid became a reality, right at the opening of the season. That year, we had less than 100 guests,” he states matter-of-factly.
The idea to tap trees and sell maple syrup was hatched 10 years ago, and a couple of years later, Steve hooked the wagon to his tractor and drove to the sugar bush with students from a few local schools, to check out the sugar-making process. In speaking to Steve, there is an instant connection of joy when he speaks of the kids on his tours. His previous experience with winery tours enabled him to easily transition to maple syrup tours: Steve is a natural speaker who makes life-long friends with his patrons.
“We promote family, providing an outside experience to discover our roots,” he says. “We show how sap was collected by pioneers and how it was boiled down, right in the back bush. The kids are allowed to taste the sap, attempt bow and arrow target shooting, try their hand at sawing a log, muck around in the mud… mostly, they are city kids who have not done much of these activities. It is time to stop pressing buttons with thumbs, and engage in some normal play, be in tune with nature, sit back and smell the woods. It helps them to think better….”
Whether Steve is prodding the students’ minds to think about where their food comes from, sloshing through the mud with them, or using his time to speak into their souls about real life issues, Steve is always busy – always thinking about his next steps and new projects. Nathan, the next generation, has been delving into making birch syrup, a savoury dark sap with a deep molasses taste and a balsamic hint of flavour. “The possibilities are endless with this newer syrup – salmon, baked beans, ginger cookies,” states Val proudly. She is the right-hand person, managing the cafe, serving patrons as they sit in the sunshine, warming toes at an open fire-pit.
Val sells much of their syrup, fudge, and other sweet savoury treats in their little sweet shop which is a renovated grain bin-turned Sugar Shack, where a seating area has been opened for inclement weather. Along with her chef, they concoct such delicacies as maple milkshakes, as well as sausages, waffles and pancakes from scratch, all served with their healthy maple syrup.
Not only is the caramel-like syrup delicious, but pure maple syrup has also become known as a superfood. The great health benefits that come in maple syrup are antioxidants and other nutrients such as riboflavin, zinc, magnesium, calcium and potassium.
Beyond the cafe is a sandy horseshoe pit where kids can blow off some steam. There is usually a newborn lamb to see in the barns as well. Patrons come from as far away as Toronto, St. Catharines, and Windsor. “We give them as much opportunity as possible to be outside and relax. We give them permission,” says Steve.
Amazingly, 85 percent of the world’s maple syrup is produced right here in Canada. The Indigenous poeple had first discovered maple sap, and began to tap and boil it into syrup. The sap that comes from a tree is a watery substance with about two percent sugar content. It takes 40 litres of sap to go through the process of boiling down to make one litre of maple syrup. The sugar content is finished within one or two degrees of the required 66.6 Brix sugar molecules, which is the industry standard. Each tree will provide approximately one litre of maple syrup per tap.
Steve says of last year’s harvest: “It was the worst yield ever last year — we needed a 10 degree swing in temperature for a good run — five degrees above zero, and five degrees below. That is perfect conditions to obtain the ratio for good syrup. But, with the exceptionally early, warm spring, the season was short.”
However Steve has a lot more optimism for the future. “We are building progressively. Every year there is something more to add to the process. Last year, we bought a reverse osmosis system, which helps to get rid of 40 percent of the water in the sap. That’s huge,” he admits. “Before the reverse osmosis equipment, the evaporator was used to boil down the sap. That would require up to 45 cords of wood, as opposed to 18 now, and a lot more time. The maple syrup then goes through a filter press and into the bottler in the bottling room. The whole ordeal of making maple syrup has been cut in half with the new reverse osmosis process.”
The season for making maple syrup begins with the caw of the crows, and ends with the croak of the bull-frog in the swamp. As the season winds down, Steve cleans the lines in the bush that attach the maple trees together, with an alcohol solution, leaving the lines on the trees all year. The lines need to be checked throughout the summer, as Steve states, “Squirrels are our biggest predator, not deer. They love the sweetness of the sap too, and chew right through the lines. They are the biggest pain in the whole process.”
The Bachert’s on-line store sells the products during the summer, and is usually sold out by December. It is a long wait ’til the new sap starts trickling again but as soon as the tours begin, people start pouring into their laneway. “People are sick of being inside, after a long winter, they want some fun. And we are ready to provide for them.” This sweet couple prepares to spread their love to others by sharing the bounty from their beautiful farm. ◊