On the west coast, the sugar bush of the Hupacasath First Nation aims to expand

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West Coast Maple Hupacasath First Nation Aims For Expansion

Kleekhoot Gold Aboriginal Sugarbush Production Manager Bryan Read (left) and Mike Farrell, from New Leaf Tree Syrups, in the processing plant of this sugar bush, in Vermont. Bryan Read was able to study in this sugar bush, on Vancouver Island this year, as well as at the University of Washington.

A pioneer in the production of syrup from West Coast maple trees, the Hupacasath First Nation sugar bush on central Vancouver Island has received $112,000 in funding from the provincial government to improve its technologies.

This company, named Kleekhoot Gold, is on the cutting edge of an industry that is still in its infancy. Kleehoot refers to one of the First Nation's ancestral lands.

Its maple syrup is different from its counterpart in the east of the continent: the sap of the bigleaf maples, where it comes from, is much less sweet, which requires harvesting twice as much sap to obtain the same amount of syrup.

The sugar bush established in 2015 is one of a handful of small commercial sugar bushes in British Columbia, says Gary Backlund, author of Bigleaf Sugaring >, a guide to maple maple syrup production. The industry is still trying to carve out a place for itself, he says.

In 2019, researchers at the Department of Environmental and Forestry Studies at the University of Washington started a project to determine if syrup from bigleaf maples can be harvested on a commercial scale.

In the United States, there was then only one commercial sugar bush of this type, two hours drive north of Seattle.

When I started this research project, I did not have high hopes. Honestly, I never believed it would get this far, says Indroneil Ganguly, a professor in the department, who now believes in the viability of the industry.

He believes that exploiting the syrup that comes from bigleaf maples allows us to see the species in a new light.

The tree, which grows abundantly on the West Coast, is often considered a weed by the logging industry due to the low quality of its wood. However, it has important benefits for its environment, in particular because it generates shade, prevents soil erosion and plays a role in the ecosystem.

Bryan Read in his sugar bush forest on Hupacasath First Nation land. He believes that bigleaf maple trees represent economic potential for his First Nation.

According to a study by a student from Indroneil Ganguly, his syrup could represent a $20 million industry dollars in Washington State, a figure comparable to the size of the pumpkin industry in that state.

To profit from this research, the Hupacasath Nation sent one of its members, its production manager, Bryan Read, to work at the University of Washington this year. For three months, he was able to soak up the knowledge of Indroneil Ganguly's research group and was also able to work on the east coast, in traditional sugar bushes.

“These sugar bushes in New York and Vermont have about 160,000 trees. It's colossal. We are small players. We try to grow as best we can. This learning was essential. »

— Bryan Read, Production Manager at Kleekhoot Gold Sugar Bush

He learned a lot from us, but I'm glad he got us also learned, thanks to his experience in his First Nation, explains Indroneil Ganguly. He adds that the experts the University had hired for the project were from the east and were unfamiliar with bigleaf maple.

Workers at the University of Washington modify the spout of a bigleaf maple.

While Bryan Read worked at the University of Washington, Kleekhoot Gold failed to produce anything, leaving the winter to the maple trees notched four years in a row of rest.

Based on studies Bryan Read did at the University of Washington, the First Nation decided to use the new provincial funding to purchase a refrigerated storage tank because the milder temperatures on the west coast cause rot the sap quickly. Refrigeration then allows it to be preserved until there is enough to begin the transformation process.

The First Nation will invest other portions of the funding in technologies such as a solar-powered sap pump, a technology that is commonplace in the east.

There are still several challenges to overcome, in particular that of distance. Bryan Read explains that, unlike the large maple groves in the east, Kleekhoot Gold’s different lands are far from each other and that he must use a truck to collect the sap at each location.

< p class="e-p">He is, however, looking forward to a new production season and hopes to produce 200 gallons of syrup from 3,000 trees this year. For comparison, the maple grove tapped 500 trees during its last year of production, in 2021.

Maple syrup from Kleekhoot Gold sugar bush, Hupacasath First Nation.

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