By Darren Lum
Area producers are finding the golden colour to an otherwise less-than-sweet season for maple syrup production in what can only be described as a down year when it comes to yields.
The website www.onmaplesyrup.ca, which includes contributors from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs maple syrup team, has labelled 2021 as the “toughest year on record, with the exception of 2012.”
It continues, “Most Ontario producers will not be making changes to their historical pricing. However, some will be raising prices slightly, especially those whose prices have remained the same for years. Some smaller producers have already sold their entire stock. Few will have enough to sell to packers this year in favour of keeping enough on hand for their regular customers.”
Beatty’s Sugar Bush operator Bill Beatty said the season was one of his shortest in the dozens of years since he started with just 12 taps in the 1960s.
Beatty said it was a down year for everyone, as far as he knows.
His production was down about half of last year’s and was close to half a litre per tree, instead of the litre he typically gets.
“It got too hot too fast,” he said.
Beatty said he started checking the lines in January and had his first boil on March 22 and then finished with a boil on April 10. There was only eight boils – each boil needs 200 gallons of sap.
With the exception of 300 gallons of sap one day, the rest of the season was devoid of significant return, which Beatty says is far from the norm.
“[It was] 80 or so gallons a day. That’s way down from what we should have got,” he said.
With 200 taps on five acres of his Haliburton land, located a short drive from the village, he’s down to a third of the taps of what he used to have three years ago, which started with boiling on an open stove when he began in the 1960s.
Married for 65 years to his wife, Anne, 86, he’s followed her observations about when to start.
“Anne said, ‘Until you get the doughnut around the tree … you’re not going to get sap. That’s why we didn’t even rush into the tapping. I was late to tapping for that reason. I felt no sense going out if there [is no sap] … it’s strictly weather. That’s all you can do,” he said.
At 88, Beatty is likely the oldest producer in Haliburton County.
He not only acknowledges his wife Anne as the ‘boss’ and responsible for quality control of the operation, but also sees a value in being actively engaged for his quality of life.
About the only time he didn’t produce maple syrup was from a few years ago when he was recovering from a heart attack.
Despite initial advice by a cardiologist to take it easy after he was recovered, he found a cardiologist that loved maple syrup and offered his blessing to continue whatever made him happy and healthy.
Other times of the year when Beatty is not busy with maple syrup, he’s working on his property, or maintaining the cottage he rents out in the summer.
At his age things take a little longer, he said. The 200 taps took six days to get ready, instead of the two it took him in his earlier years.
Although farming wasn’t his life career, he got an early start with working the land during the Second World War. At eight-years-old, he was enlisted to help his grandfather work the family farm in a small community called Garden Hill, located north of Port Hope. It was only a few years later that he started helping his uncle with his maple syrup production.
With the way the spring went, he wondered about delaying the cleaning of the sap lines and leaving the taps to continue to collect this past week.
“It was a strange, strange year,” he said.
Esson Creek Maple’s Josh Bramham of Greenmantle Farm in Wilberforce also saw less yield with his production this year from 2,200 taps on 60 acres of land, which he works on with his 74-year-old father, Mark, mother, Sandra and wife, Heather. This year his family’s operation saw a little more than one litre per tree compared to last year’s 1.7 litres. It is an all-time low in the operation’s five- year history.
The factors for lower yield was related to the shorter season brought on by the weather.
“It started a little bit later and we had that one week of warm weather. And it was basically the trees were done,” he said, referring to April 7.
Other factors included the warm spells.
“It was that last week around April 7 when things were above freezing all week and, you know, 20 degrees. That was when trees were ready to start to make buds and leaves. You know you’re done then,” he said.
The family’s first day of boiling was March 12 and the last day was April 7, which was close to two weeks shorter than last year.
The loss will affect bulk sales he said.
“We’ll hold on to more and try to retail it and not sell as many barrels. We kept some stock from previous years and hope we don’t run out. We’ll try to retail as much as possible,” he said.
Retail, he said, is about sales to the public in person and online to customers in the USA, United Kingdom and Germany, which includes wholesale when they bottle it and sell through local grocery stores in Haliburton, Wilberforce and Harcourt.
Bramham said there is an understanding that this was a poor year related to weather and that there is always next year.
“You can’t control the weather … exactly like any type of farming we’re so dependent on the weather, so you kind of just have to ride it out,” he said.
Bramham said despite the low yield the quality of the syrup was good.
“Even at the end. Sometimes near the end you get an off taste in your syrup and that’s when you stop. And if we do make something like that we’ll sell it as a cooking grade. We didn’t make any of that. It was all good syrup. We made some nice dark syrup and very dark at the end of the year and it’s delicious,” he said.
Bramham said the goal for the past five years has been to continue to grow the operation and this low return isn’t stopping that. There was 300 taps added this year. He hopes to do the same next year.
They started five years ago with 585 taps.
Before the provincial lockdown, Bramham said they hosted several tours of people.
“It was our busiest year for tours and for, I would say, overall visits to the sugar shack. There was a lot of interest and people. It was before the lockdown and people wanted to get out and do things and experience the maple season,” he said.
He adds sales were the best ever during the maple producing season, which was a reversal of last year when tours weren’t permitted due to the provincial lockdown. He said it was close to 20 per cent higher than the previous year.
Although he said they won’t be selling at the Farmer’s Market this year, he believes there is value at just being at the Farmer’s Market.
“It’s not just about the sales that you make there. It promotes you and you make lots of repeat customers so nothing but positive experiences with the Farmers’ Market,” he said.
Last year, the Bramhams didn’t become a vendor for concern for his family and his elderly parents potentially contracting COVID-19. He plans to return as a vendor in 2022.
Winterdance Dogsled Tours has been making maple syrup since 2017.
The family operation is led by well-known Haliburton musher Hank DeBruin and wife, Tanya McCready, who is defacto spokesperson and everything else that is required for the business.
She concurred with other producers about the weather factored into lower-than-usual yields, with close to 65 per cent of what they produced last year, which is down from the high of 0.9 a litre per tree last year.
She’s heard from other maple syrup producers they were down as much as 20 per cent so relatively speaking Winterdance is “feeling very grateful.”
The operation started boiling on March 20 and finished April 7.
“Normally, we’re still making syrup,” she said, referencing to last week. “Every year of the five years we’re making syrup the last week of April.”
They started with close to 400 taps in the first year and now are at 2,000 taps.
McCready said last year sales included at their trail head where they launch their dogsled tours from. They’ve also sold their products at the Eagle Lake Country Market and at the Kingston Farmers’ Market.
This year Winterdance will not be joining vendors at the Haliburton County Farmers’ Market.
During the autumn, they turned to selling their maple syrup online for the first time and found it very successful. It was prompted by the uncertainty of the farmers’ market.
The shortfall means they will set aside the expected amount for retailers and for their subscription-based online customers and they will not be able to sell at their trail head this coming year.
Their top three destinations for online sales is the U.S., the United Kingdom and Italy. Online sales account for close to 50 per cent of all their sales. McCready said for Farmers’ Market customers they will drop off [if close by] or arrange curbside pickup orders.
Like everyone, the tour operator and maple syrup has seen it’s share of revenue losses, reaching in the thousands. The attitude though is important and it’s all about moving forward.
“This year has just been economic impact after economic impact. We’ll just add it to everything else,” she said.
However, for all the challenges, she said there is optimism for better times ahead.
The plan is to add another 500 taps for next year. This poor situation is what she is characterizing as a “blip.”
“Dogsledding season was basically two-thirds lost compared to a normal winter with the shutdown. It’s been a beat up kind of year financially, but, you know, you look around the world, even Ontario is so depressing right now, and the rest of the world is pulling out of this. So the way we look at it is we’ll survive this for sure until next winter,” she said.
She is thankful for the financial support by the Haliburton County Development Corporation for enabling their expansion efforts.
She adds they’ve added summer backcountry tours for this coming season and it came from necessity, which will prove to a positive from a negative situation.
“A year from now when we get out of this we’ll just be so much stronger and have so much diversity to our business it’ll be a good thin in the long run,” she said.