One of the goals of New Farm Development Initiative is connect new farmers in the region with training oportunities and knowledgeable mentors. As part of this goal, we offer support to new farm correspondents who wish to attend and travel to agriculture industry events. These correspondents assist us in linking to information and contacts available in our region and beyond and provide valuable insight into the value of attending such events.
I’ve been a student at UNBC for four years, and I can’t wait to farm this summer! I’m part of a small crew of students who will be growing food on a chunk of Foreman Flats that hasn’t been cultivated in over 20 years. I’m always interested in learning about food production, through both agriculture and harvesting wild foods, and I’m looking forward to lots of learning through experience this season. The birch syrup workshop was a great opportunity to learn about a non-timber forest product that I hope to produce and consume from now on!
Birch Tapping with Moose Meadows Farm
With spring on its way, many of us are itching to get outside and do something in the warmer weather. Unfortunately it’s too early to sow seeds, but it’s a great time to tap trees! The collection and use of sap from birch trees (Betula papyrifera) isn’t very common in northern BC, but the nutritious liquid has been used for centuries by people in other northern regions like Scandinavia. This non-timber forest product has immense potential across Canada, combining an annual run of sap with the Canadian tradition of sugaring-off, the boiling of sap into syrup.
A group of future birch-tappers learned the basics of birch syrup from Heloise Dixon-Warren a few weeks ago, near the beginning of the sap season in our area. Earlier that day, Heloise and her husband Ted had collected 600 litres of sap from the trees at Moose Meadows Farm near Quesnel, which would soon become sweet syrup after several hours of evaporation. We learned all about birch trees, the syrup industry in Canada and the entire production process, tasted more than a dozen different syrups, and added a few new words to our vocabulary, including ‘degrees Brix’, ‘refractometer’, and ‘coppicing’. Commercial-scale processing involves considerations similar to any other value-added product (sanitation, quality control, marketing, etc), but small-scale production can be simple, rewarding, and delicious!
First, find birch trees at least 8 inches in diameter, but find them quick – the sap only runs for two or three weeks in April, and near the end of the season (when the buds start to emerge) it can change colour, become cloudy, and smell sour. Keep in mind that you will be carrying heavy buckets from your trees to your kitchen or sugar-shack, so choose your trees carefully. Drill a hole according to the size of your spiles (tapping supplies can be purchased from Moose Meadows Farm), angled slightly upward, and tap the spile into the hole. Hang a plastic bucket below or fix tubing from the tap to the container; use lids to prevent debris, insects, and rainwater from getting into your sap. Aluminum buckets are not recommended for birch sap collection due to the acidity of birch sap, but any food-grade plastic container will do. Sap should be collected and processed daily, but subzero temperatures help the sap stay fresh. Sap should be stored in a cool place after collection, and can be enjoyed as a cool, slightly sweet, crisp beverage full of amino acids, vitamins, and many micronutrients.
As for the syrup, there are some important differences between birch and maple. While maple sap is boiled into syrup at a ratio of 40:1, birch sap varies from 80:1 to 120:1, depending on the concentration of sugars in the sap of your birch trees. This increases the effort and cost required to produce syrup, but also the value of the finished product. Producing syrup does not require a commercial kitchen, although it is advisable to have Northern Health approve your facilities as a ‘food premise’, and it is important to measure pH, temperature, and other variables throughout the process. Initially, sap can be heated to a rolling boil, but as the water evaporates and sugars concentrate, reduce the temperature to prevent scorching. The sugar in birch sap is primarily fructose, giving it a fruitier taste than maple syrup, which is mostly sucrose. Sugar concentration is measured with a hydrometer or refractometer, similar to measuring alcohol content in beer or wine, in a unit called degrees Brix. Syrup must be 60 degrees Brix to prevent spoilage at room temperature, but some producers mix partially-boiled sap with other sugars to reach stability and soften the flavour of the syrup.
As there is no regulation of birch syrup across Canada, a variety of syrups and blends may be labelled as birch syrup, even if they are not pure syrup. Pure birch syrup has a unique flavour popular among chefs as flavouring, not necessarily as a condiment like maple syrup. Its applications are endless, from jams and jellies to sauces and marinades, and even in beer and wine. Several companies across Canada and the USA currently produce birch syrup, which can complement other farm products very well. The timing of the sap season is a perfect transition from winter into summer, and can provide annual income from well-managed woodlots.
Birch syrup production is an excellent opportunity for farmers in our region, and can easily be incorporated into agri-tourism. The process of sugaring-off is an interesting activity that can be turned into an exciting event; invite other local producers, host a pancake meal (with the appropriate permits, of course), and explain the process to farm visitors while simultaneously promoting your farm and products. Stable birch syrup can be sold as a low-risk food item at markets or at your farm, and a litre can be sold for as high as $100. Birch sap and syrup has recently been classified as a farm product, and income from syrup sales counts towards farm status. Further regulation, research, and collaboration will foster the growth of the birch products industry in Canada, but the success of Heloise and other producers has already proven the viability of this unique, value-added, non-timber forest product. Whether for commercial sales or personal consumption, birch syrup is a sweet start to spring – try it yourself!
For more information, or to purchase tapping supplies or “The Birch Syrup Production Manual”, contact:
Moose Meadows Farm
2861 Nazko Road, Quesnel