Nate Farr offers a history lesson on traditional methods of refining sap into syrup. HELEN TRAN

Opening day brings out the crowds, sappy jokes, at Agape Valley

Editor’s note: Agape has suspended tours and breakfasts until further notice as a precaution against spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Clear skies and warm sunshine lit up the Agape Valley Sugar Bush’s opening day last Saturday, March 7. The 140-acre farm is located on Kilman Road in Ridgeville and has been in operation under the Hartwick family since 1992. While admission is free, the revenues from the breakfast, and honey and syrup products, help to fund the Agape Valley Day Camp.

The parking lot was already busy shortly after 9 AM, with the breakfast hall full of families enjoying a meal of pancakes, fried eggs and sausage.

Despite the crowd, mother and daughter Grace and April Falardeau waited only about ten minutes for their breakfast. This was their fifth year visiting, citing the “yummy food” and the sugar bush tours as their reason for returning.

Grace and April Falardeau. HELEN TRAN

Outside, volunteers Joshua Koole and Nathan Wan were pouring taffy onto snow to cool into lollipops. Respectively, their favourite things about the farm were “tapping the trees” and “seeing all the people here.”

A row of wooden animal sculptures just outside the breakfast hall led to Trevor Koorneef, a chainsaw carver who was at Agape to display his handiwork for third year running. All of his material is “ethically sourced” from reclaimed wood. As for his creative process, Trevor explained that he either picked the wood based on a particular idea that came into his head, or he would look at a particular piece and sense a shape underneath the lumps of bark.

Ben Cretney pours taffy. HELEN TRAN

Tractors arrived often to pick up any who were eager to learn about the process of tapping and refining sap into maple syrup.

Sheena and Richard Piersma’s three children, Olivia, Naomi, and Emilia, were bursting with excitement as they sat on the hay bales and waited for the tractor to start moving.

“It’s a yearly tradition for us,” said Sheena, “and today is the perfect day to be here.”

“Agape means love, unconditional love,” said tour leader Nate Farr, with a smile. He wowed syrup aficionados with a demonstration of the ancient art of collecting maple syrup sap. The history lesson involved an axe, a stone from a crackling fire, hot cauldrons, and a lot of steam.

The farm became busier as the day progressed, with the crunch of boots on snow mingling with the sound of laughter. By noon, the parking lot was nearly full.

Walking through the woods, visitors could smell both the bonfire and the hot maple taffy being cooled into fun shapes for children to consume. The tour continued past a thawing creek and a maze of sap collecting “lines” before circling back to a group of buildings.

Olivia, Naomi, and Emilia get ready to ride. HELEN TRAN

“The jokes at the maple farm are super sappy,” said Trevor Hartwick, who proceeded with a detailed explanation of the evaporation process to turn sap into 100% pure maple syrup.

Aside from the sugar shack, there were other buildings that visitors could tour, including a milling room, a candle-making room, a maple taffy shack, and shops filled with maple syrup, candy, and cookies.

Another product of the farm is honey, which has brought 88-year-old Clifford McAllister back for 20 years.

HELEN TRAN

“I’m here to buy maple syrup too,” he said, “and it’s a beautiful day for an opening.”

The farm has upgraded its sap collection and syrup refining process over the years, with the most recent being the replacement of almost all their main sap collection lines from black to blue tubing. This improves the collection, since the best syrup is made from slightly frozen sap. The black tubing attracted too much heat, affecting the texture of the liquid.

Owner Tim Hartwick mingled and chatted with both visitors and volunteers and even gave a demonstration of the sap vacuum in action as it sucked out the sap from the main tapping lines to fill large metal tanks.

HELEN TRAN

The tractor ride back to the main entrance was packed, many riders’ hands sticky with maple sugar candy. The return to the breakfast hall revealed a growing line of visitors waiting to order breakfast, and an ever-growing crowd waiting for another round of tours, young syrup fans eager to be pumped full of sugar.

On average, say the Hartwicks, some 50,000 will visit the farm over the course of a season.