GRANTLEY Large, rotund and imposing, the ultramodern pellet-fired sap boiler gleams with more polished stainless steel than a babied 18-wheeler tanker truck.
Glancing up at her metallic steam stacks protruding through the shanty roof, back down to the digital control panel that monitors the blazing inferno within her belly, and over to the automated firebox fuel augering system, one can almost hear comedian Tim Allen's simian grunts of approval inside On the Bend Sugar Shack. Operated for a dozen years as a fun but serious hobby by childhood friends Frank Heerkens and Gary Gallinger in this northeastern corner of South Dundas Township, the 850-tap sugarbush brought the big new boiler on line this month for only its second season.
"You don't make money on hobbies," chuckles Frank Heerkens, proudly leading a guest on a tour of the crisp, board and batten sugar shack and the $25,000 Sirocco' boiler purchased a little more than a year ago and installed in the bush where County Rd. 11 takes a sharp bend (hence the name of the enterprise).
In this tranquil wooded setting at the headwaters of Hoasic Creek, Heerkens and Gallinger -- who grew up together in the same Grantley area -- fired up the unit for its inaugural 2013 burn on March 9. An upright bin outside the shack holds several tonnes of pellets before an electric auger sends them inside the building and on their way to the combustion chamber.
"It's a whole new way of thinking instead of shoving firewood into a boiler," says Heerkens of the Sirocco, first of its kind to go into service in Ontario.
Prior to buying the unit, they were already a step beyond traditional wood burning by using an oil-fired boiler, backed up with a small propane evaporator to finish off the syrup at the correct sugar or "brix" level.
The new pellet-burning boiler is 66 per cent cheaper on fuel compared to its oil predecessor, says Gallinger. A big deal when it otherwise takes $9 worth of oil to make one gallon of syrup. Gallinger, who works at Beavers Dental in Morrisburg, reports a large maple producer in Quebec saw his seasonal fuel cost drop from $51,000 to $18,000 after switching from oil to the same pellet-fired boiler.
Processing up to 125 gallons of sap per hour, it's also precise enough to make the final product without the extra finishing step at the end of the process. From a spigot on the side of the Sirocco flows hot maple syrup, ready to pack into bottles, many of which Heerkens, owner of Dundas Power Line, gives away as corporate gifts.
Given his vocation, it's not surprising the necessary electrical power comes from an on-site generator, a large cobra-head light affixed to the shed serving as another dead giveaway of those industry connections.
With the help of local contractor Dan Chambers almost a dozen years ago, the sugar shack was erected as a pole-shed construction, underpinned by hydro poles that are Heerkens' stock in trade. The recently remodeled back kitchen, complete with patio door and cozy woodstove, is paneled inside with real western red cedar sliced out of you guessed it old hydro poles. That work and other improvements at the sugar shack involved contractor Philip Merkley.
Located on the farm where Gary Gallinger grew up and owned by his father, Gerald, the 20-acre sugarbush is a certified forest through the Eastern Ontario Model Forest program.
Heerkens proudly points to a sign indicating that conservation-minded status.
He says he came to an appreciation for the beauty of natural woodlands while regularly walking through another nearby bush as a kid to play football with the Gallinger boys at their place. From a Dutch immigrant family, he also picked up a taste for tapping trees by helping another neighbour, Earl Merkley, with his sugaring operation years ago.
But he and Gallinger knew little about making maple syrup when they started the On the Bend operation, he admits. They simply forged after years of batting the idea around. "We were rookies as rookies could be."
Sap from the majority of the trees is collected with buckets, while 350 taps are handled with vacuum tubing.
In a decent year, they can make a little over 100 gallons of maple syrup, though 2012 was a bust with only 25 produced when the season was abruptly cut short with sudden warm weather. There was so little sap to boil last year, they didn't bother filling the exterior pellet bin and instead manually fed bags of pellets into the Sirocco from inside the sugar shack.
The fallout from last year's ensuing summer drought may have an impact on this year's production as well.
Speaking earlier this month at Sand Road Maple Farm in Moose Creek, Ontario Maple Syrup Producers Association (OMPSA) President Ray Bonenburg, of Pembroke, urged restraint in the number of taps deployed per tree this year because of the stress they endured in 2012.
OMPSA will host its annual summer producer tour and conference this July in Cornwall, and On the Bend Sugar Shack will showcase its pellet-burning equipment to other producers as one of the planned tour stops.