WHO: Judy & Marvin Chambers
WHAT: Maple Products
In 1977, when Marv and Judy Chambers rented 50 acres of government-owned sugar bush near their farm, there was no plan to make maple syrup central to their lives and livelihood. For 30 years Judy’s retired father managed the sugar bush, while Marv focused on the production of the maple syrup and operating the dairy farm established by his grandfather. They continued to tap their trees every spring and make some syrup to sell. In 1987, when they learned the parcel of land containing their sugar bush was to be sold, they bought it.
Over that first decade the Chambers’ syrup grew in popularity among local consumers. People coming out to buy it were asking them, “When are you going to open a pancake house ”, and they began to envision it as a logical next step. In spite of the refusal of bankers to lend them money (“not a viable business”, they said), and well-meaning bureaucrats trying to discourage them when they applied for the necessary permits (“We already have one in Norfolk; you’ll lose your shirts”), they decided to go ahead anyway and construction began in November of 1998.
The Pancake House opened in 1999, and has been a success from the outset. Rustic and attractive, it seats 50 people while still managing to retain the cosy cottage feel of Judy’s concept. It is open to the public from eight in the morning until half-past two on weekends, and by appointment to groups through the week. Usually, while 50 people are enjoying breakfast, another 50-plus more are waiting to be seated. On average, 400 hungry customers are served on Saturdays, 500 more on Sundays. Cooking and waiting on tables is a staff of 14, about half of whom are family members and good friends, the rest the kids of close neighbours.
From the time the sap begins to run around Valentine’s Day, until the Pancake House closes at the end of April, Judy and Marv are very busy people. Marv, with two or three helpers, taps the trees, collects the sap and makes the syrup. The steam boilers, the last wood-fired ones in North America, are the heart of the operation in the sugar shack where the syrup is made and they need constant attention. He is often required to invent, jury-rig and repair pieces of equipment himself. For eight weeks, from the time the Pancake House opens the first week in March, Judy is there from five in the morning until nine or ten at night. In an average year Marv produces between 800 and 1,000 gallons of syrup. By the time the Pancake House closes, Judy and her staff will have served over 7,000 breakfasts.
Maple syrup is like any other farm commodity in that the producer is dependent on the weather. The second year the Pancake House was open was a bad year for syrup. At the same time, an expensive piece of equipment necessary to make the syrup broke down. Needless to say, it was not a break-even year. Last year, the trees again failed to produce a good yield. Judy and Marv ended up with enough syrup to supply the Pancake House but very little more. While other producers brought syrup in from other places to supply their markets, the Chambers refused to do so, believing strongly it is important to maintain the local integrity of their product. Like fine wine and others of nature’s gifts, the flavour of maple syrup is unique to the soil on which the trees grow, and Chambers’ has a lighter, almost caramel quality preferred by faithful customers. Fortunately for them, their favourite syrup is usually available year-round, “weather co-operating”.
In addition to syrup, Marv and Judy produce maple candy, maple butter, maple sugar and a delicious maple barbeque sauce. Judy makes the sauce in a purpose-built ‘canning room’. They both have a hand in making the candy, sugar and maple butter. The maple fudge, lollipops, cashew brittle and taffy they sell are made for them at Brittles and Such in St. Jacobs, who use the syrup of many Southern Ontario syrup producers, including Chambers. Having these confections produced elsewhere ensures that nothing within the Chambers’ operation is contaminated by contact with nuts. Their products are carried by several local businesses, including Kernal Peanuts, Matz Fruit Barn and Bodnar’s at the Lion’s Silver Lake Market in Port Dover. The Crepe House in Port Dover and Rural Roots in Waterford are among the restaurants they supply with syrup. Each fall during the Norfolk County Fair and Horse Show, Judy displays and sells Chambers Pure Maple products at FlavourFest, the County’s showcase for many of the wonderful foods produced in Norfolk.
Because of the uncertainties of being dependent on only one source of income, Marv Chambers continues to operate his farm. Three years ago he sold off his dairy herd, but he still grows 400 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat. From the beginning of June until the first of September each year Judy works at Grand Trunk Station gift shop in Port Dover.
The Chambers have only one child, a daughter who is a social worker, so there is no likely successor to the farm. After three generations it will probably be sold out of the family whenever they decide to retire, a somewhat sad circumstance for two people who clearly love the challenges and rewards of farming. For Marv, it is the only life he’s known. Judy did not grow up on a farm and only came into the life as a bride. For the first six months of marriage they lived with Marv’s parents, where Judy received a much-appreciated ‘crash course’ on being a farmer’s wife from her new mother-in-law. She took to her new role with energy and enthusiasm, happily pitching in with the mucking-out and any other farm chores that came her way. After the birth of their daughter, the elder Mrs. Chambers looked after the baby while Judy worked for other farmers harvesting tobacco. Although she says “there are not many other occupations that require the strength of character and physical stamina that farming does”, it’s clear she would not have had it any other way.
The Chambers see a bright future for agriculture in Norfolk County. Although they say “it won’t happen overnight”, they believe that with patience and foresight the sector will grow in importance. They hope that, as it is in other areas, agriculture will continue to be promoted here as a valuable and valued resource, and that the current emphasis on consumer education will be maintained and strengthened. Judy is particularly excited about the future of agritourism. The more farms that encourage visitors to see and learn where food comes from and the work necessary for its production the more, she believes, they will be willing to support Canadian agriculture with their food dollars.
While both Marv and Judy applaud the regulation of food, particularly the labelling of ingredients that can, among other things, alert people to potential allergens, they are concerned with what they, like other farmers, sometimes see as over-regulation for its own sake. As Marv says, “don’t fix it if it ain’t broke”, meaning regulators should see if existing rules cover their concerns before bringing in new ones. Neither are they unique in their impatience with the amount of paperwork they are expected to submit. On the other hand they see some government initiatives as being sensible and necessary. Four years ago, concern about lead in consumer products led to a program to subsidize replacement of older evaporators used by maple syrup producers. As each of these pieces of equipment costs as much as $30,000, this was an important incentive to those wanting to remain in the business. Without it, Marv says, many producers, especially the older ones, would have simply closed down their operations.
He knows that while it’s all well and good to encourage local consumption, it is obvious there must be local producers to satisfy the demand.
In spite of weather and equipment calamities, things have gone very well for them, and Judy and Marv are justly proud of their success. Surveying the line-ups outside the Pancake House during the season, they have often been gratified to see those who initially refused them start-up financing, or tried to discourage their vision, among those waiting to get in. There are some who would be glad to lend them money now, but they don’t need it, thank you very much. Chambers Pure Maple Products is a well-established going concern – as Marv says, with a mischievous grin, about maple syrup: “it’s an industry worth tapping into”.
More Information: Chambers Pure Maple Products (link to partner listing)