Ontario syrup producers aim for growth and getting past the pandemic with planned autumn campaign

‘Fall in Love with Maple’ event set for autumn

Nelson Zandbergen
Nation Valley News

SOUTH DUNDAS — Beyond the immediate hurdles posed by the pandemic, Ontario’s maple syrup industry must confront the longer-term challenge of fulfilling its currently unmet potential.

Ontario Maple Syrup Producers Association (OMSPA) President Frank Heerkens expressed that primary concern during the organization’s traditional “first tapping ceremony,” March 5 at On the Bend Sugar Shack. The event otherwise served to confirm the 2021 cancellation of the industry’s annual early-April agri-tourism initiative — “Sweet Ontario Maple Weekend” — to be replaced this autumn by a new event, “Fall in Love with Maple.”

It’s the second year in a row that COVID-19 concerns have kiboshed the usual Maple Weekend, which draws many visitors to Ontario’s sugarbushes as part of a province-wide campaign during the first weekend of April, traditional height of the sugaring season.

But Heerkens, also president of the Eastern Ontario Maple Syrup Producers, focused on a deeper issue ailing the industry in his remarks to the small, socially-distanced gathering: Ontario maple syrup producers are substantially older than their competitors elsewhere in Canada and are losing ground to them.

This province has as many tappable maple trees as the globe’s maple syrup powerhouse Quebec, he pointed out, yet Ontario recently fell behind New Brunswick in syrup output. It now occupies third spot among Canadian jurisdictions in the maple field.

“Our production could double in Ontario, and we would barely meet our domestic demand,” observed Heerkens, noting that current Ontario output satisfies only 60 percent of the demand for maple sugar products in Ontario. “And we would have to triple for any kind of export requirements,” he added.

With such growth would come investment in bottling plants and other related processing facilities and “jobs, jobs, jobs,” he declared, “and better yet, tax revenue for all layers of government.”

“We have to change the mindset in how we do business, and work with our provincial and federal partners in accessing funds, accessing  Crown forests … to encourage a younger generation of maple syrup producers to carry the torch forward. Without this, the industry will stagnate.”

OMSPA is “investing” in a growth plan that aims to take the sector through the next 10 years, he said.

Among those delivering greetings and offering fond memories of the maple sugaring tradition were MP Eric Duncan, MPP Jim McDonell’s executive assistant Marilyn McMahon-Ayerst, South Stormont Mayor Bryan McGillis and South Dundas Mayor Steven Byvelds. The dignitaries also took turns and wielded a drill to hang the “first” buckets at the sugarbush, with Gary Gallinger — who operates On the Bend in partnership with Heerkens — overseeing the spile-driving process.

With daytime temperatures expected to rise above freezing this week, the season is about to get underway in earnest and follows back-to-back bumper crop years in 2019 and — to the surprise of Heerkens — again in 2020.

“I mentioned to another producer [in 2019], that we would not see another year like that for probably another 50 years,” he recalled. Then 2020 arrived and proved to be even better “with production out of this world. The producer called me up and said, ‘Wow, that 50 years went by fast,’ and I had to laugh.”

2020 unfortunately coincided with the arrival of the virus. While those producers sticking to the traditional core business of making and selling maple syrup did well — even selling out last year — Heerkens explained that those who have come to rely on pancake houses and other attractions “have suffered terribly as they will in 2021.”

OMSPA board member Angela Coleman of Sand Road Maple Farm in Moose Creek conceded feeling that financial dent amid the pandemic, as her operation absorbed the fixed costs of idled restaurant and banquet facilities last year.  “When we don’t have the opportunity to make in those eight weeks of sugar season the income that we rely on for the duration of the year, we really are facing a challenging situation because we have the upkeep of those facilities,” said Coleman. “While our on-site sales were very good for maple syrup, the ability for us to host large groups and host a sugarbush season as you would have seen in the past is greatly diminished, so we don’t know exactly how that will impact our bottom line as we continue.

“It really is those large fixed costs of the pancake houses in those larger operations that cause, I think, a number of us operators some concern as we go into our second year of, in some cases, what will be no capacity or in other cases what will be reduced capacity to offer those programs and services.”

Despite the cancellation of Maple Weekend, Coleman noted that Ontario producers will still be open for retail sales at their sugar shacks as the season gets underway, using “no-contact and low-contact” methods to put the sweet elixir into the hands of visiting consumers.

Fall in Love with Maple 2021 is scheduled for the last weekend of September and the first weekend of October.

 

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