You’d be hard-pressed to think of a job more distinctly Canadian than that of a maple syrup coordinator (with apologies to Zamboni drivers).
Not that you’re ever likely to meet many people in the business. Canada is the world`s foremost producer of maple syrup. But a maple-syrup coordinator – that is, someone who oversees the production of maple syrup from tree to table — is still a rarity. The job description was recently included in this year’s top 10 most unusual job titles on LinkedIn Canada right alongside elephant rider, astro numerologist and corn detasseler.
For Bob Jakeman, though, there’s nothing odd about it. The 70-year-old entrepreneur was literally born into the business.
His great-great grandparents, George and Betty Jakeman, started making maple syrup in 1876 on the family’s 60-acre farm in Oxford County in southwestern Ontario.
More than a century later, those same trees are still being tapped and, along with syrup collected by dozens of neighbours, the Jakeman brand has grown to become the largest maple-syrup producer in the province.
We caught up with Bob Jakeman recently to learn more about this quintessentially Canadian occupation and why he is so optimistic for the future of the industry.
After five generations in the business, you and your family have eaten plenty of maple syrup. Do you ever tire of the taste?
No. I don’t. That’s the thing, it’s something that you just never get tired of. Maple syrup is so universal. You can put it in coffee or tea, on poultry or pork.
Is it like wine? As an experienced maple-syrup producer, do you develop a nose for a good batch?
Yes, you can. We have a number of people who produce (syrup) for us and, of course, we have our favourites. We like that medium taste that people like on their pancakes or other foods.
When you talk about other producers, you are referring to the people who are tapping their own trees and bringing it to Jakeman’s to finish and bottle. How do you maintain quality control?
All of our maple syrup is re-boiled and re-filtered. We do our own blending and re-filtering so that we put the same taste on every batch. There is nothing added, it’s just the way we treat the syrup.
Talk me through what it takes to tap a tree. I’ve never done it before. The work begins in the springtime, right?
That’s right. Maple syrup only occurs in the springtime when you get freezing and thawing weather. What we do is we drill a hole in the tree. Now they use a smaller file, about 3/8 inches in diameter, and we bore into the sap wood of the tree at about an inch and half inches and this is where we take sap from the tree. We have many trees that are 150 years old that have been tapped every year and are still quite healthy.
What does it take to produce a litre of syrup?
We like to make at least a litre of finished syrup per tap. The sap comes from the tree somewhere between one and three per cent sugar. Usually when you tap in first, the tree yields a sweeter sap, that is about three per cent, but as you get a prolonged run at freezing and thawing for several days, it will drop down to one per cent. When it gets that low it takes a lot of boiling to remove the water from the sap to make the syrup.
Maple syrup has to be 66 per cent sugar in order to call it maple syrup and for it to keep on its own.
Is this something you can learn to do on the job or do you need special training?
There was a college course in maple-syrup production, but I would say probably 98 per cent of the producers of maple syrup learned by doing and learned from others. I know that we’ve trained a lot of farmers. We’ve trained them up with the evaporators and tubing systems and reverse-osmosis (systems). They’re a lot like us. We try and learn from our past mistakes and try to keep people from making those same mistakes.
How competitive a business is this?
In Ontario, we’re probably the largest packer, but that is quite small in comparison with packers from Quebec. Quebec produces over 80 per cent of the world’s maple syrup. Ontario’s production is miniscule. The province recently did a study where they determined we have more than twice as many trees that we can tap than Quebec has, so we could dwarf Quebec in production if we tapped all of our maple trees.
It is hard work, though, and land intensive. I’m guessing it’s difficult for younger people to get involved if they don’t already own the real estate?
That’s true. There’s been talk of Ontario releasing forests from the Crown lands and I think that is one way that we could maybe get our industry off the ground.
Who is your biggest international market?
The US is a big market, but Ireland has also been a great market of ours, especially right now as they are really ramping up for Shrove Tuesday. It’s a really big deal over there. We also look after the Canadian Pavilion at Epcot Disney World and we sell to LAX and JFK airports. Recently Mexico has come onboard. We go where the market is.
What other products sell well?
Our cookies are a really hot item. Everyone loves maple-cream cookies.
What are the big changes ahead for your business?
Shortly we’ll be moving to a new plant and a much larger facility. Right now our plant (on the family farm) has buildings that are over 150 years old. The building I am speaking to you in was built in the 1850s. It’s been great to have this heritage, but wooden buildings are not food-approved anymore. We are going to have to move to a newer structure that is food approved and has all the certifications that we need to ship anywhere in the world.
Are young people, outside your own family, interested in learning this stuff?
I think so. In the past it has been very difficult for people to grow their own production and do marketing at the same time. It is the same with other types of crops on the farm. We are very good producers, but not so good at marketing. My goal was to fill this void of creating a market for syrup farmers so they can grow their production and know that there is actually going to be a place to sell their crop.
Are you ever going to get rich being a maple syrup farmer?
I’ve put more money into the business over the years than I care to admit and it’s been a difficult road. We’ve now entered into some great new agreements with some very big retailers and we’re confident that we are going to grow quite rapidly in the next couple of years.