Bigleaf maple syrup runs in the family

We’re still enjoying summer but chillier mornings tell us autumn isn’t that far away. For those who enjoy the change in seasons, autumn conjures up pleasant images of brisk walks in fragrant woods, tasty meals capped by delicious desserts, and cozy times in front of the fireplace (or Netflix) after dinner.

What will it be? Coffee or tea with a slice of pumpkin hazelnut cheesecake drizzled with maple syrup or, if you’re watching the waistline, some toasted hazelnuts scattered over thick yogurt, drizzled with maple syrup? Maybe you’re thinking of a healthy, hearty breakfast like oatmeal with a couple spoonfuls of maple syrup, or baked apples drizzled with… Sensing a theme here? Maple syrup. But not just any maple syrup — local maple syrup produced from Vancouver Island’s own bigleaf maple trees rather than the typical sugar or red maple trees of eastern North America.

The sugar shack at Autumn Leaves Maple Farm was built around the large Dominion & Grimm maple sap cooker-evaporator that Philip and Allison Bowers transported from Blackfly Lake, BC where it had been used to produce birch syrup.

Surprisingly, Qualicum Beach can now boast some of the tastiest maple syrup to rival the esteemed maple syrup produced in Ontario and Quebec (according to a customer who grew up “back East” in the heart of maple syrup country and spent a night or two tending the fire at the neighbour’s sugar shack).

Autumn Leaves Maple Farm is located in one of QB’s bucolic farming areas, amidst sheep farms and market gardens, and nestled in the lee of Mount Arrowsmith.

Bigleaf maple is native to the Pacific Northwest and coastal BC at low to middle elevations from San Diego to Vancouver Island (lat 33 to 51°N). It usually grows from near the Pacific Ocean to a maximum of 186 miles (300 km) inland.

Philip and Allison Bowers had “always loved Qualicum Beach” and wanted to retire here, ideally on a rural property where they could indulge their passion for nature and the land. The couple often visited QB from their home in Chemainus, looking for the elusive property of their dreams.

One day in 2014 they went out for lunch and by happenstance saw an ad for a QB property that seemed to check all the boxes: 20 acres (eight hectares) of undeveloped forested land, designated ALR (Agricultural Land Reserve). The couple didn’t want to get their hopes up though — the property had been for sale for a while. They were delighted to hear that it was still available and immediately drove up to see it. As the couple walked the property, they marveled at the mature cedars, Douglas fir and tall groves of bigleaf maples, all fed by wetlands and bordered by French Creek. Allison says they knew “it was meant to be ours.”

Many people who “retire” to QB embark on a second (or even third) career. Allison and Philip weren’t sure exactly what they wanted to do, but the land provided the inspiration. One thing the couple knew “we didn’t want to be cutting trees,” says Philip. They considered using the land to grow and market hazelnuts, since Philip was familiar with a hazelnut farm in the Cowichan Valley. However, he learned that hazelnuts do not like wet feet. But then he thought, maples do! That’s when the germ of their bigleaf maple syrup farm began to sprout.

Neither Allison nor Philip had any farming, food production or retail experience, but once again fate intervened to give them a nudge. In 2015, Allison received a message from one of her friends asking if she and Philip would like to have a commercial grade stove and evaporator for producing maple syrup. Her friend’s mother, who had bought the equipment to produce birch syrup, had recently died. To buy the equipment new would have cost Philip and Allison about $30,000.

But there was a catch — the “stove” as the couple refers to it had to be transported from Blackfly Lake in northern BC. Built in Quebec by the venerable company Dominion & Grimm which has been in business for over 100 years, the cooker-evaporator has a wood-burning concrete oven that heats and reduces the consistency of the watery maple sap as it runs through stainless steel piping and collection pans to produce syrup. You’d think Philip and Allison were all set to begin tapping trees, but far from it.

The farm was classified as “bare land” when they bought the property, meaning there was no house or any other buildings on the land. The Dominion & Grimm (D&G) cooker-evaporator was delivered and stored with a friend, but it would be Christmas Eve 2016 before the Chemainus couple moved into their new, spacious, open-beam Qualicum Beach home in the woods. They lament that some trees had to be removed to provide space to build the house. The next step was to install the D&G cooker-evaporator in its own new home, a separate building near the house. “We built the sugar shack around it,” says Philip, of their pride and joy.

“This is Philip’s baby,” says Allison referring to their bigleaf maple syrup operation but, like most births, this was a joint effort. Philip scoured the Internet and collaborated with other maple syrup producers to learn how (and more importantly he says, how not to) commercially produce maple syrup.

Meanwhile, Allison took on the job of applying for farm status with the BC Ministry of Agriculture. The process took over a year. They believe they were the first to apply for a maple syrup farm designation, so the province had no expertise in assessing such an application. Maple syrup farms in Ontario and Quebec, they discovered, operate under significantly different parameters.

This was where BC Assessment was very helpful, they say. “Looking at the farm from the air,” says Philip, “it’s a great mixed forest.” BC Assessment suggested that the tree canopy coverage be analyzed to identify the proportion of bigleaf maple trees and to map their location. That would determine the equivalent of a standard farm growing area, as required by BC regulations.

With the aid of GPS technology, Philip mapped the tree canopy to reveal that at least two acres of the property’s tree canopy contained mature bigleaf maple trees. With that, the farm license was granted. The couple says, as far as they are aware, they are still the only licensed maple syrup farm on Vancouver Island and perhaps in all of BC.

Philip and Allison used their wood-fired D&G cooker-evaporator for the first time in 2018. Maple syrup production on this scale is a year-round job. The season begins in November or December when Philip puts out the buckets and taps, watching for the first cold snap. Like any sort of farming, nature dictates the challenges and results. He says the trees can be tapped for a period of about four weeks, “if you’re lucky,” before the sap runs out or the tap site heals over. Some days, he may get half a litre of sap from one tree and 14 litres from another tree.

The new “farm house” is adorned with an exuberant display of large hanging baskets.

This is liquid gold. Forty gallons of sap are required to make one gallon of syrup. Maple trees do not produce usable sap until they are at least 30 years old. Philip has found that the best runs coincide with the winter holidays, Christmas, New Year’s, Valentine’s and Easter.

In the summer, he builds trails through the forest to gain access to the stands of big leaf maple, clears the forest of combustible underbrush, and creates “nursery beds” of young bigleaf maple trees that will be transplanted.

Staying true to their nature, the couple uses only deadfall to provide the firewood needed to produce the final syrup product. The well-engineered, energy-efficient D&G cooker transforms 30 gallons of sap an hour into syrup, and only a cord of wood is needed to produce a season’s worth of maple syrup.

Allison says, “we don’t know if we found the property, or the property found us” but, with hard work, perseverance and a little bit of luck, the couple has realized their dreams, and enriched the array of local products available in Qualicum Beach.

WATCH VIDEO – making bigleaf maple syrup in Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island, BC.

Philip and Allison Bowers of Autumn Leaves Maple Farm sell their bigleaf maple syrup at the Qualicum Beach Farmers’ Market and at the Coombs Farmers’ Market, and can be reached at 250.228.1801.