The Gleaner
Agriculture

Keen tappers see early start to the maple season

Sugar shacks were spouting steam and evaporators were boiling across the Valley on February 10, as producers who were already tapped and ready to go took advantage of a significant sap run.

“It is the earliest we have ever started here,” said Céline Ouimet, who runs the Cabane à Sucre L’Hermine sugar shack in Havelock with her sister Chantal and brother-in-law François Benny. “The conditions were ideal,” she said, referring not only to the above-average temperatures for early February, but also to the sparse snow cover that made tapping and preparing for the season a little easier.

At L’Hermine, the sap ran for over three days without stopping overnight. Normally, the seasoned sugar-makers average one to two barrels of finished syrup during the first boil. As of last Monday, they had already filled over 11. When asked whether the early start to the season is cause for concern, Benny shrugged. “Not really. It can change fast. If it freezes now, it will start to run again when it warms up. But it is possible that the season will be shorter.”

 

François Benny of the Cabane à sucre LHermine in Havelock was pleased with the golden outcome of an early run in his maple bush that started February 10 PHOTO Sarah Rennie

 

Last year, the boiler at L’Hermine was brought to life on February 18, which seemed early at the time. The owners noted that despite being a full week earlier, this year’s sugar content was surprisingly high from the start. Benny said the region’s producers should now be prepared for a first run around Valentine’s Day, and Ouimet agreed, suggesting the variation in winter temperatures is forcing producers to adapt their practices.

According to the Plan d’adaptation de l’agriculture de la Montérégie aux changements climatiques, winter temperatures will continue to rise, leading to a shortened season with alternating episodes of rain and snow. This could mean less snow cover, leaving soils more vulnerable come spring. “We can’t complain about making syrup in February when the quality is there,” said Ouimet, noting the risk is greater for producers further north, who are facing shortened seasons as temperatures rise more rapidly and over longer periods.

New uses for syrup

Down the road in Rockburn, Denis Rousseau was feeding his boiler every 15 minutes to keep his evaporator rolling. He explained that while his older setup involves more work cutting wood and a has longer boil time, the syrup he produces has a creamier texture. As the owner of Ferme Black Creek, Rousseau is especially interested in the taste, texture, and colour of the syrup he uses to concoct his artisanal acers, or alcoholic beverages made from the fermentation of concentrated maple water or diluted syrup. “I want to have more of a toffee flavour,” he noted, suggesting this involves starting with a darker syrup.

 

Denis Rousseau feeds the fire powering his evaporator during his first boil of the 2024 season at Ferme Black Creek in Rockburn PHOTO Sarah Rennie

 

Rousseau tapped early this year, after having missed the first run during the past two seasons. “It’s a nice start,” he said, adding that by the end of this first run, he will already have processed around 10 per cent of his average annual yield. “Now everything has to be emptied and cleaned, and we’ll start from scratch in ten days,” he laughed.

Rousseau is one of around 25 producers who came together late last year to form the Association des producteurs d’acers du Quebec. “When people taste my products, they are always surprised,” he said, while pointing out how customers tend to expect something sweet and are often taken aback by how dry his products can taste.

Reason to celebrate

Alcoholic beverages made from sap or syrup were featured when the Quebec Maple Syrup Producers (QMSP) officially toasted the start of the 2024 syrup season, during an event at the National Assembly in Quebec on February 7. The QMSP were also celebrating the allocation of seven million new taps designated for start-up and expansion projects across the province. These additional taps could see Quebec’s annual production of maple syrup increase by 21 million pounds.

“Maple production is the driving force of Quebec agriculture. We’re really proud to be behind the increase in the number of farms,” said QMSP president Luc Goulet following the January 24 lottery. “We are taking steps to produce more syrup. Together, we’re striving to achieve our goals of replenishing the reserve within five years, while continuing to meet the demand for maple syrup here at home and in more than 70 countries around the world,” he declared.

Over one million of those new taps were awarded in the Montérégie, which will eventually bring the total number of taps in the region to 4.8 million by 2026. These numbers include 108 successful applications from the Montérégie-Ouest region, which will see 32 new syrup businesses and 76 existing producers share a total of 280,691 new taps.

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