Despite tariff war, US and Canadian maple producers find common ground

US and Canadian maple producers find common ground

Separated by a border and trade disputes, syrup producers are connected by a shared love for their craft.
Published: May 30, 2019 | Updated: June 17th, 2019 at 12:19 pm
In the Canadian sugaring industry, maple syrup producing is often a family affair. Three generations of the St. Pierre family can be found working around their maple camp.
In the Canadian sugaring industry, maple syrup producing is often a family affair. Three generations of the St. Pierre family can be found working around their maple camp.

Hugh Newton, a maple syrup producer in Potsdam, New York, hadn’t been having a good weekend.

The 75-year-old has been making syrup for decades, but it had been a struggle to get his evaporator — a huge stainless steel boiler — up to the perfect temperature for turning watery sap into the sugary final product. To find comfort, Newton weighed a quart of his dark amber product on an old rusty scale. Two pounds, just where it should be.

Newton produces at most a few hundred gallons of syrup every year, making him a small player in New York state’s million-gallon maple syrup industry. But New York’s production, and that of the U.S. as a whole, pales by comparison to that of its northern neighbor. Across the border, Canada produced more than 12.5 million gallons of maple syrup in 2017 compared to the nearly 5 million gallons the United States produced last year. The two countries value syrup differently.  Imagery of the maple tree is central to Canadian nationhood. The maple leaf can be found on our northern neighbors flag, money, government offices and road signs. By contrast, maple syrup in New York is at best an agricultural blip compared to the state’s dairy farms and apple orchards.

Hugh Newton in his sugarshack in Potsdam, New York.
Hugh Newton in his sugarshack in Potsdam, NY.

Yet tensions over trade between the United States and Canada have managed to find their way into this niche industry, too. After President Trump introduced aluminum and steel tariffs on imports from Canada in 2018, Canada retaliated with tariffs on a variety of U.S. goods, including maple syrup.  Yet the producers themselves view each other less as rivals and more as members of an international community dedicated to their craft, a craft threatened by large corporations and cheaper alternatives.

The St-Pierre’s of Lancaster, Ontario, sell their product directly off their property, but the family also sells drums of syrup to the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers, a government organization that some consider a “cartel” which offers stable prices for syrup that is stockpiled and used as a reserve.  The Federation uses their significant clout to promote syrup across Canada with advertisements and even TV shows, but it’s the community of maple syrup producers that sets the industry apart.

Maple syrup collects in vats at a farm.

Many of the Syrup producers are friendly with one another.

Sugarshacks become warm and sweetly aromatic in the process of boiling sap to make syrup.

Sugarshacks become warm and sweetly aromatic in the process of boiling sap to make syrup.

“We’re all good friends in the area, we go to dinner, we share knowledge,” Patty St-Pierre said.  It isn’t their fellow producers who offer competition or rivalry, but rather the people who don’t value the craftsmanship involved in sugar making, like supermarkets or makers of artificial syrup.

Quebec by itself produces two-thirds of the world’s syrup. Paul Hébert, a relatively small Quebecois producer by his own account, taps some 9,000 maple trees on more than 300 acres outside the small village of Knowlton.

“The forest is where the money is made,” he says, and it’s easy to see why.  Instead of traditional metal buckets hanging from spigots on the maple trees, modern sugarmakers like Hébert connect their taps to each other with plastic tubing, which are then fed directly into their sugar shack by huge vacuum pumps.

Syrup producers keep samples in clear glass jars that reveal the syrup’s color.
Syrup producers keep samples in clear glass jars that reveal the syrup’s color. The color correlates with the time when syrup was produced; the darker the color, the later in the season it was made.
Maple farmer pouring a sample of syrup.

Sugargers don’t only produce syrup. There’s also a market for maple sugar candy, teas, seasonings, and more.

Samples of maple syrup at farm

Paul Herbert, who owns a sugarbush in Quebec, pours shots of fresh maple syrup.

Back in Ontario, just off Highway 401, sits Gibbons Family Farm, a community staple in Frankville. The local church hosts a pancake breakfast using the family’s syrup, and they hold frequent open houses to teach their community about sugar making.

Bill Gibbons, who recently handed the business over to his daughter Sarah, echoed the St-Perrie’s feelings about the greater maple syrup community. To Gibbons and others, the real competitors are supermarkets and artificial syrup products.

Borderlines: Bucket collecting maple tree sap
While many producers connect their tapped trees with blue tubing to collect sap, some have stuck with the old bucket-and-spout method.

These families and their operations are separated by an international border and vast gulfs in production numbers, but they’re connected by a shared sense of purpose and community.

“I don’t view any of the other producers as competitors,” Gibbons said.  “I mean, there are neighbors down the road that are making and selling (maple) candy, you know, they came here and we taught them how to do it.”

Gibbons Farm is located in the small town of Frankville, Ontario.
Avatar for Jason Coupal

is a contributor for The NewsHouse

Co Authors :

Avatar for Jason Coupal

is a contributor for The NewsHouse