When Innisfil Fire Captain Greg Bray leaves the fire station, he heads to his other passion.
He returns to his family and 52 acres on Line 5 of Innisfil, and becomes a farmer.
It’s something that’s always been in his blood. Bray grew up in Hockley Valley, and has always loved the family farm life.
Finding Maple Heights Farms and moving to Innisfil was a perfect fit for Bray, wife Nadina and their three children. They raise heritage chicken and eggs, lambs, and every spring, throw themselves into maple syrup production, tapping the maple trees in their sugar bush.
The sugar bush is extensive. At least 500 taps are “tubed” with a network of plastic tubes running from tree to tree, capturing the flowing sap and directing it to the sugar shack, where the evaporator is fired up.
A recently surveyed new section of the sugar bush should yield another 800 taps, “and that’ll be great for us,” said Bray.
But there are also plenty of galvanized tin buckets, hung on spiles, and collected the old-fashioned way. “We’re always gong to do a couple hundred pails,” said Bray, simply because “that’s what kids like. It’s fun!”
It’s strictly a local operation, in more ways than one. Bray purchases the feed for his animals, the fuel for his truck and equipment, and his firewood locally, making the operation more sustainable.
He and his family built the sugar shack, which they are still improving. “Our first year, we had the evaporator and the stick framing” and little else, Bray said. “Basically, everyone was freezing.”
Now the shack is closed in, has a tin roof, and will soon be more weatherproof and cozy for the 12-hour process of transforming maple sap, which starts at only about 2 percent sugar, into maple syrup.
During March Break, the sugar shack and farm was open to the public. Bray demonstrated the process of ‘sugaring off’, describing the compartments, floats and baffles that make the evaporator so efficient, and the wood fire used to finish the product.
It’s been a late start to the season, thanks to the cold weather – but on Wednesday, there was a steady flow through the pipes. “When we really get going, it’ll really flow,” Bray said, resulting in a short, but sweet season.
Bray demonstrated how to tap a maple tree, and hang a bucket. Visitors also had an opportunity to meet some of the animals that call Maple Heights home. Two of the newest lambs, four- and six-week-old Romney-Leicester-Jamaican Blackbellied sheep crosses, ambled up to the shack, to be petted and bottle-fed.
The lambs are the responsibility of oldest daughter Alyssa, 14, who explained their coloration and odd hair-like wool. “They shed their wool,” she said; considered too coarse to be spun by most crafters, the family leaves it out for the birds to build their nests.
Visitors could also purchase Innisfil Creek Honey and bottles of Maple Heights Syrup, with all of the proceeds going to the new Rizzardo Health and Wellness Centre opening in Innisfil later this year.
“We didn’t have a family doctor when we moved to Innisfil,” said Nadina. “We went to walk-in clinics, and to Emergency, up in Barrie.”
To have the Health and Wellness Centre in town, offering lab and diagnostic services, family physicians, a walk-in clinic and other health-related options “is going to be amazing,” she said.
Maple Heights Farms is usually open all March Break, but will be closed on Friday, March 15: the family is going to a hockey tournament. Instead, Bray has invited the community to come back March 22, 23, 24, for the Farms’ Open House and maple syrup demonstrations.
Admission is free. “I’m glad people from the town are dropping by,” said Bray.
Maple Heights Farms, 3358 Line 5 (just west of 10 Sideroad) in Innisfil; see Maple Heights Farms on Facebook.
The County of Simcoe has published a Tap into Maple Driving Tour, March 1-April 30 – but it’s entirely in the north half of the County, from Midland to Lagoon City. BradfordToday offers some locations and events in South Simcoe and York Region, for those interested in touring a sugar bush and enjoying a Canadian tradition:
- Maple Heights Farms, 3358 Line 5, Innisfil. On Facebook.com, or call 705-220-1632. Open House takes place March 22-24.
- Sugarbush Maple Syrup Festival at the Kortright Centre for Conservation, 9550 Pine Valley Dr. in Woodbridge, March 4 to April 2. Open daily, with special activities, crafts and horse-drawn wagon rides during March Break. Pancake breakfasts, demonstrations of pioneer methods of ‘sugaring off’, modern evaporators. Adults $9, Seniors and children (5-14) only $6. Parking is extra. See maplesyrupfest.com or call 905-832-2289. Sugarbush Maple Syrup Festival also takes place at Bruce’s Mill in Stouffville.
- Spring Tonic Maple Syrup Festival, April 6 and 7 at Tiffin Centre for Conservation, 8195 Line 8 in Essa Twp. (near Utopia). From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., enjoy costumed re-enactors, demonstrations of maple syrup making, horse-drawn wagon rides, crafts, live music, a Zoo To You animal show, make-and-take birdhouses, and a pancake and sausage breakfast served from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Adults $14, children $7 at the gate – cash only. Includes breakfast, but make-and-take craft is another $5. Hosted by the Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority and Barrie Rotary Club.
- Breedon’s Maple Syrup, a family-owned sugarbush near Alliston, is open for tours, demonstrations and samples. The maple syrup operation, located at 3662 Conc. 3 in Adjala-Tosorontio (west of Newton Robinson, and north of Loretto) taps over 5,000 maple trees, through 40 miles of tube networking. Bring your camera! See www.breedonsmaplesyrup.com or call 705-435-5269.