An early sap run last week saw steam billowing from several shanties across the Valley, as those who were able got in a “practice boil” before the coming maple season starts in earnest.
“I think this is just a preview,” says Chantal Ouimet of the L’Hermine Cabane à Sucre in Havelock. “The sap has started to flow, but the sugar content is not very sweet,” she adds, noting the forecast is for colder temperatures this week. “I believe after that it will be the right time to start the season,” she says, while acknowledging that with climate change, Valley producers might have to get used to tapping earlier in the season.
Ouimet says despite the low sugar content in the initial run, they are not worried that the milder winter will impact sap quality. “As long as there are frosts at night and a thaw during the day, the flow will come,” she says. “In agriculture, we have to stay positive to be able to face any outcome.”
Ouimet speaks with the wisdom of someone whose family has been sugaring off since 1963. Her advice may prove valuable to the 66 start-up maple producers in the Montérégie-Ouest region who received quota in 2021 from the Producteurs et productrices acéricoles du Québec. According to an article in La Terre de Chez Nous, of the 3.2 million taps issued to new producers, only 29 per cent have been installed. The association says they believe the majority will be able to meet the April 1, 2024, deadline to convert the new quota, as the taps will be redistributed if they are not in production.
Saint-Chrysostome-based producers Kaylie Stuckey and James Manning were among the fortunate few who were able to start up new operations last season. Stuckey says she had been applying for new quota for years, and they had already planned to launch their operation when the new taps became available. “We are still just starting out, so there is a big learning curve,” admits Stuckey, who has previous experience working in her family’s sugar bush. “We are not tapped yet, so we missed this run,” she shrugs, suggesting they will be out in the bush this week. “We didn’t want to stress out,” she adds, noting that until very recently there had been deep sticky snow in the bush, and with two young children at home, they were content to sit this early run out. As to whether the start of their second season has her worried, Stuckey admits that she is always concerned, but “that’s the case with a seasonal business.”
Producers Laurie-Ann Prevost and Roger Jr. Duheme in Rockburn were equally nervous as the sap began to run last week. The start of the season meant firing up the brand-new oil-fed evaporator that had been waiting patiently in their newly constructed shanty since October. After a few delays, they were able to begin boiling by Friday afternoon. Along with the still-shiny evaporator, they are now equipped with a 5500-gallon tank in their shanty that will keep the sap from degrading due to heat from the sun.
The couple have 2100 taps already in production that were rented out in previous years; however, the additional quota they received as part of the PPAQ lottery will only go into production next year. “We will have 4000 taps eventually,” says Duheme, while frequently monitoring the boiling progress. “We wanted something different, and we wanted to diversify the farm,” he says, when asked why they decided to invest in their sugar production. While they already own Rockburn Orchards, Prevost says maple syrup is a growing market while apple sales have been going down in recent years. She says syrup production is also attractive as while it is still weather-dependent, a sugar bush is not as susceptible to damage as an orchard. “We also don’t have to rely as much on labour,” admits Prevost. The sap is pumped from a station in their bush directly to the shanty, so “we don’t have to collect anything.”
“This has been a good way to test everything,” she says of the early run, noting they can now take the time to fix any kinks in the system before the season really starts. She says she is nervous about their first season, but she admits she is looking forward to a pancake meal with their very own syrup.