March 2024 Newsletter

Mud Everywhere!

It’s March, and the only sign so far that spring is on it’s way is that the snow seems to be (mostly) gone. And in its place, we have mud!

Our pigs spend a lot of time indoors unless the sun comes out on these dreary days, and the cattle would prefer to stay indoors too, except that we feed them in the yard from our supply of round bales. It isn’t as good as fresh grass, but it will do for now, at least that’s what we tell them every day. Our supply is holding out well, and we are even able to sell a few bales to other farmers in the area. It feels good to give back to some of the local farms who provide us straw for bedding since we don’t have our own.

While we wait for the luscious green grass to appear in the pastures, we have plenty of other things to do. Cows are calving in the field, there is maple syrup to make and wood to pile. Soon we will be repairing fences and hooking up water lines to get ready to let everyone out of the winter pens and onto pasture.


“Are you going to tap this year”? The phrasing of the question identifies the speaker as an old-timer. The kids would ask “Are you going to make maple syrup?” The answer is yes. We are tapping (drilling holes in maple trees and inserting taps) and collecting the sap to be boiled down into maple syrup. It is one of the great pleasures of living on a farm here in southern Bruce county, to have the opportunity to go to the bush in early spring and spend some weeks of hard work in the most peaceful place imaginable, and reap the reward of golden, delectable maple syrup.

In the management and design of our maple syrup operation, here at Zettel Family Farms, we are next thing to luddites, still hanging buckets on the trees and carrying pails of sap to dump them in “the pan”, an ancient galvanized steel vessel which sits on a concrete fireplace in the shack. We have no lines, no vacuum pump to suck the sap into a stainless steel holding tank, no reverse osmosis filter or evaporator. Just buckets and pails and the pan on the fireplace in the shack.

My Dad, Gerald Oliver Zettel (1918-2009) grew up with the tradition of tapping in the days when maple syrup was an important piece of the farm family’s food self-sufficiency. They gathered with horses pulling a stone boat – a heavy, low profile sled – with two 40 gallon cider barrels fastened in tandem. Somewhere in the transition between generations, before my story begins, the art of maple syrup was lost on the Zettel farm. My early memories of the bush include the sight of a forlorn heap of stones and a few metal stakes, the remnant of a shack and fireplace from a previous era. That, and my Dad’s stories of good times in the bush with his friends playing cards, of Ma (my grandmother) clearing the syrup in the kitchen of the farmhouse, were my only connections to tapping. I secretly promised that someday we would make maple syrup again.

Not long after entering into partnership with Dad in 1977, we decided to act on reviving this long lost treasure of the past. Dad had a friend who was getting out of the maple syrup business, who offered him all the pails and spiles we wanted for free. We found an old pan – about 2 feet square and 10 inches high, mounted it on a metal frame and covered the 3 sides with roofing steel, and started boiling. Boiling sap with a wood fire requires a fair bit of judgment, based on experience which we lacked, and our first calamity was not long in coming. One night I stoked the fire full of hardwood and came back in the morning to find that it had boiled dry; the syrup was lost and the pan ruined. What to do? Start over.

Somehow Christine’s grandmother got wind of our misfortune and let us know that there was a pan collecting dust in her shed which hadn’t been used in decades – we were welcome to it. This old relic was more than twice the size of our previous victim and required the construction of a new stand, but we were soon back in business and managed to reap a modest supply of syrup that year. Dad and I resolved to upgrade the facilities before the next syrup season. During the summer, we mixed concrete by hand to build a fireplace to fit the pan and with cedar posts cut from the swamp we framed in a shack to protect the boiling operation and the wood supply from rain and snow. Dad was in his glory back there for many years and visitors were always welcome. I would come back to gather, and as time went by my kids were big enough to help. Grandpa would be smiling out from the entrance to the shack, shrouded in a mist of maple sugar fog, stoking the fire and skimming off the foam on top of the boiling sap.

Like many of the best things in life, this is one that is rich in experience and the creation of warm, long lasting memories. One beautiful, warm and sunny day this year we were joined by more than a dozen grandchildren and our two great-grandchildren, all intent on helping to dump buckets and gather sap; the older ones teaching the smaller kids – everyone enjoying the wonder of this special time in a unique environment. Little Joseph, just turned three, was gazing up at the sky and asked me; “Where did you get all these trees?”

We don’t need maple syrup to sustain the family diet any more. Tapping is not a profitable venture if you count all the labour. But for the sake of tradition or posterity or nostalgia – call it whatever you like – I think that God willing, we will do it again next year. It just seems right.

March Featured Products

We have a lot of pork and chicken in stock! Soon the weather will improve and we can barbecue again. We’ve got plenty of products to help you get ready!

We have a nice supply of whole chickens that we are hoping to sell before the new batches arrive in June. We’ll be pushing to move these in the coming months. If you buy 10, you get a 10% discount on them.

Posted in Newsletters.