A growing cottage industry based on tapping paper birch (Betula papyrifera) is helping to strengthen and diversify the rural economy of British Columbia (BC) and interest is spreading across Canada.
Within the interior of BC, paper birch, also known as "white birch" or "canoe birch", is naturally abundant on both private and provincial forestlands. It typically grows on lowlands to lower mountain slopes and is a shade intolerant species; as such, it thrives well on previously burned and / or harvested sites where it may form pure stands. As the forest matures, it usually is restricted to openings.
Commercial use of birch in BC is primarily limited to small amounts of traditional wood products including flooring, lumber, plywood, oriented strand board (OSB) and fuel wood. However, there is growing interest and demand for non-timber products from birch. There are a small but growing number of commercial birch syrup businesses, with most selling their product directly to the consumer and through a variety of retail outlets, farmers markets and fairs. Limited sales over the internet have also occurred with distribution across the country and into the United States of America. The commercial producers indicate current demand exceeds production, and interest in their natural, unique products is growing.
Recognizing the opportunity for new operations or products from paper birch, the Quesnel Community and Economic Development Corporation (QCEDC), with funding assistance from the BC Agroforestry Industry Development Initiative, sponsored a Birch Agroforestry Industry Development program. The goals of this program are to support: (i) the development and expansion of a paper birch based agroforestry, and (ii) to promote value-added products from the same, to assist with diversifying and strengthening the regional economy.
To meet these goals, the QCEDC implemented a program to improve access to birch agroforestry information and support technology transfer through the development of the "Birch Syrup Production Manual" (the first manual on birch syrup production in Canada) and "hands-on" training sessions. Existing information and producer knowledge on birch tapping and sap processing were compiled into the user-friendly production manual for prospective agroforestry practitioners. The QCEDC and its partners have also delivered training workshops to approximately 50 interested land owners to-date during the Spring birch tapping season of 2007 and 2008. These sessions provided:
- An overview and on-farm demonstration of birch tapping;
- An overview and on-farm demonstration of birch syrup processing;
- Information on relevant processing food safety and labelling regulations; and,
- Information and training on markets and marketing.
The production of birch syrup is rewarding but it can be challenging. There are no unified production standards in Canada, and a limited amount of technical support. Until the development of the Birch Syrup Production Manual, most technical literature was geared towards the sugar maple industry. Unlike sugar maple, which requires about 40 litres of sap to produce each litre of syrup, the ratio for birch is 80 to 120 litres of sap for every litre of finished syrup. As such, there is a substantial amount of evaporation that must be done under controlled conditions in order to produce high quality syrup. Adding to this challenge is the fact that the sugars in birch sap are primarily fructose and glucose which have a lower "scorching" temperature than those in sugar maple sap. Because of this, as birch sap becomes increasingly concentrated, low temperature evaporation is needed to successfully finish the syrup.
The finished product is a unique, gourmet product and birch syrup makers are capitalizing on the premium price they can command in the market. Pure birch syrup has retailed for up to $100.00 per litre and a survey of commercial producers in 2007 indicated that demand exceeds supply and as such, they all sell out of their product annually.
The QCEDC is the designated economic development agency of the City of Quesnel. The City is one of the most forest-industry dependent communities in Canada, and faces challenges posed by a severe global market downturn for forest products. As with many rural communities in BC, it is also severely affected by the Mountain Pine Beetle (MPB) crisis. The MPB epidemic is the largest forest pest outbreak in recorded history and according to the BC Ministry of Forests and Range, 80% of BC's mature pine (a primary species utilized for forest products manufacturing), or approximately 960 million m3 of wood, will likely be dead by 2014. BC's Chief Forester projects this "catastrophe" could result in regional timber harvesting reductions of at least 40%, and as much as 70%, within 10 years. Because of the large number of direct and support jobs dependent on the timber harvest, a reduction in the timber supply is anticipated to cause substantial, unprecedented economic adjustment. Investing in agroforestry and other integrated opportunities is an essential link to diversifying the future economy. As such, the opportunity to expand the existing birch tapping industry fits well with overall community and economic development plans for the region.
Jim Savage, Executive Director at the QCEDC is pleased to be supporting agroforestry development and sees long-term benefits from the program: "The improved availability of "producer-friendly" information is a key to the expansion of the birch syrup industry, and to develop other birch agroforestry products and new markets." Additionally, the networking and partnerships stemming from this project will form a basis for future industry development and co-operation on projects of mutual benefit, where currently no formal industry structure exists.
And the mainstream agricultural industry in BC has taken notice of this agroforestry success story. In February, the QCEDC and a delivery partner, Moose Meadows Farm, were recognized for their efforts as recipients of the BC "Award of Excellence for Innovation in Agriculture and Agri-Food" at the BC Agriculture Council's 2008 Agri-Food Industry Gala in Abbotsford, BC. The award, sponsored by the Investment Agriculture Foundation of BC, recognizes an individual, organization or business that has made a unique and important contribution to BC's agriculture and agri-food industry in the last three years.
The trend towards increasing demand for local food products is strengthening the market potential for birch syrup and in looking to future development of the sector, a host of new niche birch products are also of interest. In addition to syrup, other birch products that could be developed include sap drinks (e.g. birch tonic, birch wine, birch sap-fruit juice blends), crafts (from wood and bark) and non-traditional wood products.
The "Birch Syrup Production Manual" can be purchased from the QCEDC through their website for CAN $40.00: www.quesnelinfo.com.
Funding for the BC Agroforestry Industry Development Initiative is provided by the Investment Agriculture Foundation of BC. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture and Lands provide funding and support for the Foundation. The Federation of BC Woodlot Associations administers the BC Agroforestry Industry Development Initiative.