Syrup Lovers Pay More For Canada's Sweet Sap

Two bitter winters have eaten up producers' surplus and hiked prices

THE temperature is 32 degrees F., give or take a degree. When the shadows make it colder in the gray and white maple bush, the sap freezes in mid-run, stuck like a tiny icicle on the spile that milks the tree for its annual liquid harvest, maple syrup.

The sap runs when the nights are below freezing and the days warm. When the sap run is late - it only began at the end of March around here - it usually means a short season and higher prices.

``It's just been too cold this year,'' says Lawrence Rhicard, who has made syrup for more than 40 years on his farm in West Bolton outside this village. ``There's so much snow we can't get to all the trees. We should have 3,500 taps, [but] we've only got 2,000.''

What syrup Mr. Rhicard does produce this short season will fetch a higher price for the first time in many years. Two cold winters have done what a government agency failed to do: get rid of most of the surplus of maple syrup hanging over producers in Canada and the United States.

Last week, when the sap was finally running, the syrup poured from Rhicard's wood-burning boiler in his sugar house.

``Forty gallons of water have to go through this roof to make a gallon of syrup,'' Rhicard says through the steam. He draws off some syrup into a cup.

Light amber in color, it is the best grade from the start of the sap run and much thicker than the sap itself with the sweet, unmistakable taste of maple syrup.

Rhicard, one of Quebec's 11,000 maple syrup producers, will make 350 to 400 gallons this year. It is not his best year, though the quality is top grade.

``Some years you can't make good syrup no matter what you do. If it hadn't been so cold we could have made 600 gallons,'' he says, as he lets half-made liquid drip from a ladle and checks its consistency before straining it through a felt liner into an old milk can.

Rhicard produces about 6 to 7 gallons an hour, stoking his boiler with wood while his sons and grandchildren gather sap from buckets hanging from the spiles or taps on maple trees.

This is the old-fashioned way of making maple syrup - gathering the sap from buckets and using wood for the fire. Some producers are more automated, using oil-fired evaporators and vacuum-powered pipelines to suck the sap from the trees.

These large commercial operators can tap 60,000 trees and produce thousands of gallons of syrup. Maple products are about a $50 million (Canadian; US$36 million) business in Quebec.

``The price of syrup is up 10 to 15 cents a pound this year,'' says Michael Herman, president of Turkey Hill Sugar Bush Ltd., a maple syrup bottler and packager in Quebec's Eastern Townships, a major maple syrup producing area. With about 13 pounds in a gallon, that is a price increase of a dollar or two a gallon for the producer.

``It's been cold and that's slowed down production,'' says Mr. Herman, who sells maple syrup products, from maple jam to pure maple syrup. But for producers and farmers, that is not bad news.

There is no shortage of maple syrup, especially in Quebec, which produces more than 70 percent of the world's supply. Just three years ago, there was a large surplus of maple syrup as a Quebec government agency - patterned on ``marketing boards'' that control agricultural products such as chicken, eggs, and milk - tried to control the market.

It didn't work. The Quebec Federation of Maple Syrup Producers was left with a lake of more than 2 million gallons of maple syrup.

``What's left - about a million gallons - isn't so much a surplus as an emergency supply,'' Herman says. ``It shouldn't affect prices on the market.''

Prices are still low because of the small surplus of syrup in Quebec. Prices would be a lot lower without the cold winters.

``It was a very poor year in 1993, so that used up a lot of the surplus,'' says Archie Jones, a retired professor of forestry at McGill University in Montreal, who is still involved in maple syrup groups. ``The price in Quebec is still about $8 a liter; $15 a liter would be normal.''

That translates into US$23 a gallon in Quebec. In neighboring Ontario - a minor producer by comparison - prices are 50 percent higher, and higher still outside other producing areas such as Vermont.

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