Maple syrup runs in Donkin family’s blood

Dave Mathieson
Published on March 5, 2013
Don Donkin watches as sap begins its annual migration from his sugar maple trees to a holding tank. The sap will be transferred into an evaporator and then turned into the numerous maple products he sells. 
Dave Mathieson - Amherst Daily News

FENWICK – Liquid gold began trickling from maple trees a little over a week ago but over the weekend the sap started to run fast from the taps, forcing Don Donkin and his crew to leap into action for the 2013 season.

“We had 1,000 gallons (close to 3,800 litres) of sap on Saturday and Sunday. We had 200 gallons on Saturday and 800 gallons on Sunday,” said Donkin. “That is a beautiful start…a very good run in two days.”

Donkin says his earliest start on the sap season was eight years ago, on Feb. 21.

“But they’ve started as late as March 26,” said the 63-year-old. “This year we have a March 2nd start, so we’re almost half way in between.”

The evaporators kicked into high gear on Monday and Donkin will start producing fresh batches of his long line of maple products, including maple barbecue sauce, just in time for the weekend rush of maple lovers.

“Sometimes we have 400 people through our camp on Saturday and Sunday,” he said. “And we sometimes get a lot of people on Friday as well.”

Donkin runs his sugar camp with help from three seasonal workers, plus his wife Pat and daughter Raya.

The Donkin family has been involved in maple production for almost a century.

“This sugar woods was my great grandfathers, which he started in the 1920s with his two sons,” said Donkin. “They had no children but his sister, my grandmother, had seven children and most of those children helped their uncles in the sugar woods.”

His grandfather had 2,200 trees.

“They would fill a bucket, walk back to the horse which pulled a 50 gallon drum, and when that was full they’d go to the camp and put it in another big tank and then go back in the woods again,” said Donkin. “They would do that up to 20 days every season. That was a lot of walking.”

Donkin says there was a decline in maple production in Fenwick after the Second World War.

“Seventy years ago there were 14 sugar camps in the Fenwick Hill area and 40 years ago there was only one sugar woods camp.”

Donkin said most men returned from the war with skills in the trades and could make 20 times as much more money working in Amherst than they could working in the sugar woods.

“They would go to town and earn $10 a day, and farmers would pay people 50 cents a day. They couldn’t get help.”

The industry came back to life in the early 1970s in what Donkin calls the ‘age of plastic,’ making the industry less labour intensive.

“They started making plastic lines and the sugar camps went from one camp and back up to seven,” he said. “There’s three of us (sugar camps) on this road and four others in the area. Plastic revitalized the sugar woods.”

Donkins’ father, Ralph, eventually bought the sugar woods.

“He didn’t have time to work in the woods because he had four children,” said Donkin.

Donkin said he always had a love for the woods because of the story’s his father would tell him about working in the woods.

“I came home from Alberta in 1988 and we started the sugar woods back up again,” he said. “My father was retired and my father-in-law was retired, so I had a lot of free help to help build the camp.”

Donkin started out with 37 acres, and then in 1998 he bought 40 more acres.

“We started out with 500 trees with buckets and sold our syrup, and then we built the camp and we went to 1,000 trees,” said Donkin. “Over 22 years we’ve gone up to where we now own 6,000 trees, so it wasn’t like, bang, everything was here.”

Each tree costs $2 to run a sap line to, and he also has a $10,000 evaporator and six tanks used to hold the sap, which cost $1,000 each.”

Most important, he has mature trees.

“Any one of the trees that has a sap line running to it is 150-years-old, some are 250-years-old, and some of the bigger ones could be 300-years-old but, likely, not much older than that,” said Donkin.” My father said the bigger the trees, the more sap they have. He said that if you went to a big tree the bucket would almost be full. The bigger trees would run longer as well.”

Donkin said he still plans to run the sugar woods for a little longer yet.

“I plan to keep doing it until I’m 70,” said Donkin. “Hopefully I’m healthy enough to do it. I love doing it.

What will happen to the sugar camp once he retires?

“I have a daughter who’s partially interested in it and she may take it over.”