The fruit of the sugar maple on full display this weekend at the Elmira Maple Syrup Festival depends on good weather, but it also owes much of its success to the tools involved in tapping, evaporating, and storing the sugary nectar.
Edgar Reist of Reist Farm Supplies in Elmira got involved in the maple business at a young age, watching his father and grandfather to learn the tools of the trade.
Through years of trial and error he learned how to do what’s called TIG (Tungsten Inert Gas) welding in order to manufacture evaporators, or what some people call boiling vats. The evaporator turns the sap into syrup through dehumidification, and it’s the major product they manufacture.
“The manufacturing is a very tedious job. It’s TIG welding, stainless is very slow work. We’ve taught ourselves. There’s nobody in the industry that will actually be able to tell you how to do it because any welding school that you go to they don’t really teach this industry. They actually teach how to properly weld and fuse stainless, but that process doesn’t actually work for what we do because it actually warps the pan, so to speak, beyond recognition. So we had to teach ourselves how to do it and it’s been a long process, but we’re getting there,” Reist said.
He recalls trying TIG welding as a teenager when it first became popular. He says his dad tried it too but didn’t find much success.
“Because I was young I tried it and I kept at it, failed, tried again, failed, and eventually I kind of got a bit of a pattern of how it worked and by the time I was probably close to 20 years old, we pretty much had it to where we’ve come a long way and we think we know what we’re doing. We hired a young 20-year-old fella to help us and I was teaching him how to do it. And the first day because I had all these tricks I was able to lead him on and get him started. Well he took from where I stopped and thought I was a perfectionist, he went from there and he made it better,” he says with a laugh.
He says they’ve gone from making fairly good looking evaporators to ones that look like they were made in a factory, where the welding lines are so neat and polished that they’re hard to see.
“That’s been our learning curve for probably close to 20-odd years,” Reist said.
He notes the manufacturing side is probably only five to 10 per cent of their business, and the rest is acting as a dealer for maple syrup equipment and other goods.
“We actually are a registered dealer for Lapierre Equipment in Quebec. They are a large company. They have 140,000 taps themselves and then they actually manufacture most of the maple equipment for what we basically sell. Then we sell packaging, like glass jars, bottles, etcetera,” Reist said.
And they’ve got a huge variety of glass bottles for bottling syrup, including bottles shaped like hockey players, gingerbread men and Christmas trees.
“Certainly maple is probably our biggest kettle of fish that we cook,” Reist said.
And business is good, as they recently expanded their facility on Line 86 to make more space for their goods.
But if Mother Nature isn’t cooperating that means less syrup produced and less need for their products.
“If no maple is done it’s detrimental to our inventory, for sure. It’s kind of interesting how it works because maple is so seasonal that all our suppliers are seasonal as well. We actually have to order [the bottles] in August, September for the following year to allow them time to make or create it,” Reist said.
They don’t make the stainless steel barrels which maple syrup is stored in, but they have to order them within the next two weeks to have them in stock for next year. This requires planning far in advance, especially for some of their glass and packaging that comes from Europe and China.
“In the past 10 years I’ve seen a huge increase in volume of maple syrup. There’s a bunch of reasons for that and probably the most prevalent reason is we have introduced a vacuum into the maple syrup industry to suck the sap from the trees. Now, we’re not killing the trees by any means. What we’re doing is actually enhancing the sap flow. That has doubled our crop from the same trees from the tap holes; we have basically got double the amount of maple syrup and that has now basically doubled the flow,” Reist said.
He says the buy local movement has helped their business too and every year, year over year, their retail packaging sales usually increase about 10 per cent, and that’s been the standard for the past decade as producers are looking to turn a bigger profit and need more supplies to do so.
“We make it possible for hundreds, possibly thousands of people. We service a lot of Ontario, actually. We don’t really advertise, but yet we’re widely known all the way from I’d say Windsor to Barrie to all the way down to Eastern Quebec. We service a broad range and probably a good 450 to 500 regular customers and a lot of walk-ins which we don’t record,” Reist said.