The non-traditional idea that's part of how one couple manage their woodlot
Stacey and Norman Paupin get firewood, exercise and something else from their land
Let it never be said Norman and Stacey Paupin are without vision.
The Londonderry, N.S., couple would have needed it in spades when they purchased a Cumberland County woodlot in 2012.
Prior to the couple buying it, the approximately 40 hectares of land in Shinimicas had two clearcuts in the previous 25 years, and it showed.
"There were places where you couldn't see through and couldn't walk through — it was just a thicket, basically," Norman said during a recent tour of the land, which includes softwood and species of birch and red maple.
They purchased the land as a source of firewood and a place to enjoy the woods. Norman spent the first two years just reclaiming the road, a step that provided plenty of firewood and better access to be able to understand what was there.
The couple has a land management plan, which is intended to help guide the thinning of the property, knowing what trees to keep and which ones to take out, and what species are likely to do the best in each section of the property.
"At this point, it's more of a restorative approach," said Norman.
"To me, it's going to be productive when I can get the most trees on that piece of land growing."
The work is done mostly on weekends and holidays using a chainsaw, clearing saw and small forwarder Norman built himself. Everything they do on the land is aimed at breathing new life into the property, said Stacey.
"Leaving it better than we found it is really the objective for us," she said.
The couple's approach earned them the provincial woodlot owner of the year award for 2020, a nod that more often goes to people managing a piece of land that's been in the family for multiple generations.
Part of the Paupins' effort to resuscitate their land includes finding multiple uses that can help create more value.
They tried their hands at tapping maple trees in the beginning. But their trees aren't sugar maples and so, following some research, they tapped birch trees.
They learned quickly that trying to make birch syrup the same way maple syrup is made wasn't going to work.
"It tasted like — not so good," said Norman.
That's because there's even more water that needs to be removed from the sap, and keeping temperatures controlled is critical.
The garage at the Paupins' home is filled with equipment intended to help refine the process and potentially be able to reach commercial scale.
Norman, an industrial mechanic and electrician by training, has devised a process that includes reverse osmosis, simmering and vacuum evaporation to remove the water and produce a syrup that's sweeter than that original batch. A version that's darker has a caramel taste, while a lighter variation — produced when temperature can really be held down — tastes more like honey.
Right now, they're only making test batches of a few litres each season. But finding a way to commercialize the product would not only solve a personal challenge but also create a new opportunity for their woodlot because birch syrup sells for a higher premium than maple syrup.
"The numbers are starting to look like it's reasonable, but we're still playing with it and trying to figure it out," said Norman.
Already there's an indication they could be onto something: a batch from 2018 won an award at the 2018 world birch syrup championships.
It's an example of the value of considering non-traditional approaches to forestry, said the Paupins. The more ways a private woodlot owner can find value in their land while continuing to maintain it, the better the future outcomes, said Norman.
"Trying to get back to this Acadian forest where it's mixed tree species, we should see what we can do as far as having a market for each and every one of them. Otherwise, I'd have to clear cut and wait [for another cycle] and, to me, that doesn't make sense," said Norman.
"We should be able to continue to have income coming in all the time; maybe small amounts, but every year would be much better than lump sum at some point in the future and still have standing timber all the time."
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