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Inside the pressures facing Quebec’s billion-dollar maple syrup industry

  

Category:  Environment/Climate

Via:  hallux  •  one month ago  •  41 comments

By:   Jillian Kestler-D'Amours - Al Jazeera

Inside the pressures facing Quebec’s billion-dollar maple syrup industry
Canadian province supplies most of the world’s maple syrup, but climate change is raising new questions for producers.

S E E D E D   C O N T E N T


Saint-Urbain-Premier, Quebec, Canada –   In clear safety glasses and heavy beige overalls, Jean-Francois Touchette is in his element.

All around him are pipes, tubes, temperature gauges and various humming instruments: all the machinery needed to turn tree sap into maple syrup.

Touchette’s syrup operation is a small one, run out of a modest, two-storey wooden building at the end of a long dirt driveway in rural Quebec.

But as winter turns to spring, Touchette — like thousands of other maple growers in the Canadian province — faces pressure to collect, boil and bottle his harvest.

“It’s a small factory. I’m really at a small scale, but it’s the same, same, same [setup] as the bigger ones,” he told Al Jazeera on a sunny morning in early April, one of the last days of this year’s maple season.

“I produce 650 gallons [about 2,500 litres] a year — 15, 17 barrels.”

Maple syrup is one of Quebec’s most iconic products: No other country or province produces as much of the sticky, sweet topping, often drizzled on pancakes or warm waffles.

But a shifting maple syrup season, driven in part by climate change, has created challenges for the industry.

In 2023, Quebec produced 35.6 million litres (9.4 million gallons) of maple syrup — down 41.4 percent from the previous year, according to data from Statistics Canada.

As temperatures grow more erratic and winters shorten, Quebec’s syrup producers have been forced to adapt to the changing conditions and adjust their operations accordingly.

“We have to tap the trees earlier, and in February, we have to be ready. That’s what it’s brought, climate change: It’s shifting the season,” Touchette said.

A cycle of freezing-unfreezing


Climate change has a direct impact on the window of time farmers like Touchette have to gather sap, the sweet substance that helps trees transport water and nutrients from their roots to their leaves.

The springtime cycle of freezing temperatures at night — and warmer weather during the day — produces pressure inside maple trees. That build-up of pressure, in turn, allows sap to flow from the tree when its trunk is tapped or pierced for syrup-making.

Advances in technology have boosted maple syrup production in recent decades. Nowadays, there are vacuums to draw sap out and computer systems to pinpoint any disruption in the tubes that connect trees to each other in a maple grove.

But the weather remains key to ensuring a successful harvest.

“It takes a specific cycle of freezing-unfreezing,” explained Sergio Rossi, a professor of forest ecology at Universite du Quebec a Chicoutimi (UQAC) in the province’s Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean region.

If Quebec sees prolonged, uninterrupted stretches of subzero temperatures — or, by contrast, warmer weather — that could set back syrup production because it interrupts that necessary cycle, Rossi told Al Jazeera.

“It’s a bit like when you go fishing. You can go out one day, and you’re able to get a good haul. Sometimes you go, and you come home with nothing,” he said. “Maple syrup works a little bit like that.”

A mild winter


This year, a relatively mild winter meant that Quebec’s maple syrup season began in mid-February across the province — weeks earlier than usual.

Fluctuations in the season, linked to climate change, have made harvests more unpredictable, Rossi said. That means producers must be ready to collect the sap whenever the weather changes.

But larger operations could have a more difficult time adjusting their schedules, given the time and staffing needed to tap massive groves.

“If you have two maple trees in your yard and you want to attach a bucket to produce a little bit of maple syrup to boil at home”, tapping those trees will take only a few minutes, Rossi explained.

“But if you’re a large producer that has 500, 1,000, 10,000, 100,000 [trees], that means 100,000 maple trees to tap. You can’t make that decision at the last minute. You have to prepare in advance.”

An earlier start date for maple syrup production also raises questions around whether the seasons will shift but remain the same duration, or if they will get longer or shorter.

That has raised more questions for researchers such as Rossi. Could changes to the season affect the amount of sap trees produce? Could it affect the amount of sugar the sap contains and its overall quality?

Shifting weather patterns could also alter which areas are best suited for maple syrup production, Rossi added. If the local climate changes significantly, some farms where syrup has been produced historically may no longer be viable.

World’s only stockpile


However, with an abundance of maple trees and a climate that is favourable to production, Quebec remains the largest maple syrup producer in Canada.

The French-speaking province prides itself on the   billion-dollar industry , which accounts for more than 70 percent of the global supply of maple syrup.

Its business model includes the world’s only maple syrup reserve. That stockpile — known as the   Strategic Reserve   — is controlled by an organisation that represents 13,000 producers in the province, called Producteurs et productrices acericoles du Quebec (PPAQ) or Quebec Maple Syrup Producers.

The PPAQ oversees   a quota system   that regulates how much maple syrup each producer can make annually and how much goes out on the market. It uses the reserve to keep supplies steady, in case unpredictable temperatures or other factors dampen production.

The stockpile also helps to ensure that domestic and foreign markets don’t face shortages. Most of what gets made in Quebec ends up south of the border in the United States or in other foreign markets such as France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

And over the years, Quebec’s maple syrup reserve has intrigued people both across Canada and around the world.

In 2012, for instance, authorities discovered that more than 9,500 barrels valued at more than $13m ($18m Canadian dollars) had been stolen from a Strategic Reserve warehouse and replaced with water.

More than a dozen people were arrested for their roles in the “Great Maple Syrup Heist”, and the convicted mastermind behind the scheme was ordered to pay back the dollar amount he had sold the syrup for — more than $6.5m ($9m Canadian dollars).

A historic low


But the reserve made headlines in recent years for another reason: its plummeting supplies.

The drop came as global demand for maple syrup shot up during the COVID-19 pandemic and production dipped due to the weather and other environmental factors.

While the PPAQ was able to dip into the Strategic Reserve to keep supplies consistent during the slowdown, the stockpile now sits at its lowest level in more than 15 years, explained Joel Vaudeville, the group’s communications director.

A year ago, the reserve housed nearly 16 million kilogrammes (35 million pounds), spread across   three warehouses   in the Centre-du-Quebec and Chaudiere-Appalaches regions of the province.

Today, however, the reserve counts only 3.1 million kilos (6.9 million pounds) of maple syrup — a historic low that drew   international headlines .

“It’s really about what Mother Nature brings us each spring,” Vaudeville told Al Jazeera in a phone interview in late March.

“Our window for production is only five to seven weeks long,” he said. “When we lose production days because of unfavourable temperatures, of course it makes a big difference for us.”

Hopeful outlook


Despite the hurdles, producers are hopeful that 2024 will yield better results than past seasons.

“In mid-February, we were worried,” Vaudeville said. “We didn’t have any indication of whether we’d have a good season of maple syrup production, and we knew stocks were less and less available both at the Strategic Reserve and on the processing side.”

But that changed by late March, he explained, and Quebec maple syrup producers are expecting a good haul to help replenish the reserve.

“It’s too early to do an overall assessment, but we can say with confidence that we’ll make a lot more syrup than last year,” Vaudeville said. Having 45 million kilos (100 million pounds) of maple syrup, he added, would put the reserve at a “comfortable” level.

He said the PPAQ is trying to boost production capacity too. Between now and April 1, 2026, the organisation intends to put 14 million additional taps in place to draw sap out of maple trees.

That represents 19 million kilos (42 million pounds) of potential syrup production, Vaudeville explained.

That production is key to continuing long-cherished traditions in Quebec. While 85 percent of Quebec maple syrup is exported, it remains a staple in many Quebec households.

Many Quebecers also take part in a maple-related road trips every spring: They visit a “cabane a sucre” — or sugar shack — to have a syrup-soaked meal and explore erablieres, the groves of maple trees where the whole process begins.

“Maple syrup for Quebecers is like the Montreal Canadiens,” Vaudeville said, referring to the   professional hockey team . “In other words, it’s part of our national identity.”

‘Effervescent’ harvest


That sense of national pride was echoed by Touchette, the maple syrup producer in Saint-Urbain-Premier, about 40km (25 miles) southwest of Montreal in Quebec’s Monteregie region.

“We’ve been bathing in maple syrup for a long time,” he told Al Jazeera. “It’s the first harvest of the year, so it’s effervescent.”

Despite the challenges that climate change can bring — including strong winds and ice storms that damage trees — Touchette said 2024 was an average season. “We won’t break records. We’ll have a good harvest,” he said.

As always, maple syrup production remains subject to the whims of nature, he added.

“That’s why we have a common market and a reserve, because it’s the weather that governs. We have to be able to absorb these production cycles,” he said.

“Otherwise, you’ll lose your place on the shelf, and people will buy something other than maple syrup.”


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Hallux
PhD Principal
1  seeder  Hallux    one month ago

For Brits in the gang there is always Lyle's Golden Syrup (yum) and for the Yanks corn syrup (yuck)!

 
 
 
shona1
PhD Quiet
1.1  shona1  replied to  Hallux @1    one month ago

Morning...and for Aussies Vegemite..

 
 
 
Hallux
PhD Principal
1.1.1  seeder  Hallux  replied to  shona1 @1.1    one month ago

... and you can make it in your washing machine!

 
 
 
shona1
PhD Quiet
1.1.2  shona1  replied to  Hallux @1.1.1    one month ago

Morning...bliss...😊

I just had my Vegemite on toasted muffins...

Will have the get another jar..I am just about out..

320

 
 
 
shona1
PhD Quiet
1.2  shona1  replied to  Hallux @1    one month ago

Never had maple syrup but have seen imitation stuff which I wouldn't eat in a pink fit..

I have had golden syrup and that's very nice...

 
 
 
sandy-2021492
Professor Expert
1.2.1  sandy-2021492  replied to  shona1 @1.2    one month ago

TBH, maple syrup is one of the few times I'd prefer the artificial stuff over the real deal.  Pancake/waffle syrup has a maple flavor to it that I like better than pure maple syrup, which tastes much sweeter to me.

I've never had golden syrup.

 
 
 
Drinker of the Wry
Junior Expert
1.2.2  Drinker of the Wry  replied to  sandy-2021492 @1.2.1    one month ago

Fancy / Grade A is the lightest and less sweet than other grades.  It’s taped early in the season.

 
 
 
Freefaller
Professor Quiet
1.2.3  Freefaller  replied to  sandy-2021492 @1.2.1    one month ago

Barbarians, maple syrup is the food of the gods

 
 
 
Hallux
PhD Principal
1.2.4  seeder  Hallux  replied to  sandy-2021492 @1.2.1    one month ago

When I was but a tad of a lad in England, pancakes were served with lemon juice and sugar ... still my favorite.

 
 
 
Hallux
PhD Principal
1.2.5  seeder  Hallux  replied to  Freefaller @1.2.3    one month ago

Quebecers think so.

 
 
 
sandy-2021492
Professor Expert
1.2.6  sandy-2021492  replied to  Hallux @1.2.4    one month ago

I'd try that.  Powdered sugar, or granulated?

 
 
 
Drinker of the Wry
Junior Expert
1.2.7  Drinker of the Wry  replied to  sandy-2021492 @1.2.6    one month ago

A wonderful Fall and Winter Cocktail:

  • 1 ½ - 2 oz. Rye whiskey 

  • ¼ Light maple syrup 

  • 3 Dashes aromatic or orange maple bitters

  • Fresh Orange Peel for Garnish

  • Stir over ice, drain and relax 
 
 
 
Freefaller
Professor Quiet
1.2.8  Freefaller  replied to  Hallux @1.2.5    one month ago
Quebecers think so.

More than Quebecers think so.  I've lived all across this great country and most everyone I've met loves maple syrup (tho it is damn expensive)

 
 
 
Hallux
PhD Principal
1.2.9  seeder  Hallux  replied to  sandy-2021492 @1.2.6    one month ago

granulated

 
 
 
shona1
PhD Quiet
1.2.10  shona1  replied to  Hallux @1.2.4    one month ago

We do that here too... obviously the British heritage coming out...

 
 
 
Hallux
PhD Principal
1.2.11  seeder  Hallux  replied to  shona1 @1.2.10    one month ago

CSIS RCMP and ASIS ASIO = MI-6 MI-5 all of which get traditionally fucked by our cousins in the CIA FBI.

 
 
 
Hallux
PhD Principal
1.2.12  seeder  Hallux  replied to  Freefaller @1.2.8    one month ago
I've lived all across this great country

I managed a whole weekend in TO once ... t'was more than enough.

 
 
 
Buzz of the Orient
Professor Expert
1.2.13  Buzz of the Orient  replied to  Freefaller @1.2.8    one month ago

I guarantee that the people of Ontario have always felt the same. 

 
 
 
Buzz of the Orient
Professor Expert
1.2.14  Buzz of the Orient  replied to  Hallux @1.2.12    one month ago
"I managed a whole weekend in TO once ... t'was more than enough."

I spent most of my life in Toronto and it was good enough for me. 

 
 
 
Hallux
PhD Principal
1.2.15  seeder  Hallux  replied to  Buzz of the Orient @1.2.14    one month ago

I'm sure it was.

 
 
 
Freefaller
Professor Quiet
1.2.16  Freefaller  replied to  Hallux @1.2.12    one month ago

Actually TO is one of the places I never lived (although I have visited for a few Blue Jay and Leaf games).  I did live in Barrie about an hour north for a few years, it was a nice little city.  I think I saw you mention you were an east coaster, I've lived in a couple places there, great people

 
 
 
Buzz of the Orient
Professor Expert
1.2.17  Buzz of the Orient  replied to  Freefaller @1.2.16    one month ago

Although I've been up and down the American east coast from Boston to Miami and west in Canada as far as Vancouver, I've never been east in Canada farther than Montmorency Falls, which is east of Quebec City.

 
 
 
Freefaller
Professor Quiet
1.2.18  Freefaller  replied to  Buzz of the Orient @1.2.17    one month ago

Still cool tho, luckily my career/life allowed me to live in Victoria BC in the west to Goose Bay Labrador in the east, Whitehorse Yukon in the north and Ft Belvoir Virginia in the south with many locations in between, add in some postings to Germany, Yugoslavia, and Aghanistan, plus some vacations to unique places (Maldives being my fave) and I've been very blessed

 
 
 
Texan1211
Professor Principal
1.2.19  Texan1211  replied to  Freefaller @1.2.18    one month ago

I was born at Ft. Belvoir!

 
 
 
Buzz of the Orient
Professor Expert
1.2.20  Buzz of the Orient  replied to  Freefaller @1.2.18    one month ago

A life like the one you and I have lived at least assures that our attitudes are not narrow-minded. 

 
 
 
Freefaller
Professor Quiet
1.2.21  Freefaller  replied to  Texan1211 @1.2.19    one month ago

Awesome! That's where I was born too back in 62. don't really remember anything about it as I was only 3 and an half years old when we returned to Canada.  Proof it is a small world 

 
 
 
Texan1211
Professor Principal
1.2.22  Texan1211  replied to  Freefaller @1.2.21    one month ago

my dad was stationed there in 58.

had one sister born at Norfolk 4 years earlier

 
 
 
Freefaller
Professor Quiet
1.2.23  Freefaller  replied to  Texan1211 @1.2.22    one month ago
my dad was stationed there in 58.

62 for my dad (just a few months before I was born).  Kinda weird when I think about it my family (mom, dad, brother, sister) used to be all Canadians except me now 60ish years later I'm the only one still living up here.  Odd how life turns out sometimes

How long was your dad in the military (mine was in 53 - 90)

 
 
 
Kavika
Professor Principal
1.2.24  Kavika   replied to  Freefaller @1.2.18    one month ago
Yugoslavia,

Where in Yugoslavia?

 
 
 
Freefaller
Professor Quiet
1.2.25  Freefaller  replied to  Kavika @1.2.24    one month ago

Hey Kav, mostly Bosnia-Herzegovina and a little time in Croatia,  I went back to Croatia on vacay years later and had a much better experience that time, lol.

 
 
 
Kavika
Professor Principal
1.2.26  Kavika   replied to  Freefaller @1.2.25    one month ago

I've spent a lot of time in Croatia mostly along the coast cities and a fair amount of time in Bosnia and Slovenia but my favorite was Macedonia and Montenegro all of what was Yugoslavia was stunning in both visual natural beauty and in its history. 

 
 
 
Freefaller
Professor Quiet
1.2.27  Freefaller  replied to  Kavika @1.2.26    one month ago

My impressions of the recent history and some people are a little discoloured by what I saw there but you are correct that it is a geographically beautiful there (especially the Croatian coastline), my favorite sites was the Centina (sp) River Gorge and the little town of Trojir

 
 
 
Kavika
Professor Principal
1.2.28  Kavika   replied to  Freefaller @1.2.27    one month ago

The Dalmatian Coast is stunning with all the islands off the coast with wonderful ancient towns in each of them.

 
 
 
Kavika
Professor Principal
2  Kavika     one month ago

For centuries the Ojibwe of MN have and produced maple syrup for both local consumption and for sale across North America.

like wild rice it is part of our culture so if need real wild rice, maple syrup or any of the fine natural jams is another side line of ours. If you want the best contact me I’ll get there website for you.

Kavika

 General sales manager

 
 
 
evilone
Professor Guide
2.1  evilone  replied to  Kavika @2    one month ago

I send the good wild rice to my kid in AZ every year. He love that stuff.

 
 
 
Kavika
Professor Principal
2.1.1  Kavika   replied to  evilone @2.1    one month ago

Once you've had real wild rice there is no other.

 
 
 
Buzz of the Orient
Professor Expert
3  Buzz of the Orient    one month ago

When I first moved to China I brought with me a very large jar of maple syrup that, as much as I love it, I never opened but gave it as a gift to my new mother-in-law who never liked me.  It didn't help.  The problem is that I have never been able to find maple syrup here, even in the big box import stores like METRO.  So although when I make pancakes for breakfast I sure would love to be able to eat them with that number one topping, maple syrup, I have to put up with honey instead.  Another strictly Canadian food I miss is butter tarts.

 
 
 
Freefaller
Professor Quiet
3.1  Freefaller  replied to  Buzz of the Orient @3    one month ago

Just guessing but you should be able to get some online, I mean ya can get anything online these days

 
 
 
Buzz of the Orient
Professor Expert
3.1.1  Buzz of the Orient  replied to  Freefaller @3.1    one month ago

Good point.  I'll check that out.

 
 
 
Snuffy
Professor Participates
4  Snuffy    one month ago

My nephew-in-law (?) (sister's daughters husband, guess I can call him that although he does prefer to be called Andy, LOL) owns a good piece of land in Michigan and also makes his own maple syrup. He made 3 gallons of it this spring, but with his kids that won't last till next season.

 
 
 
Buzz of the Orient
Professor Expert
4.1  Buzz of the Orient  replied to  Snuffy @4    one month ago

Before I moved to the other side of the world, I almost always had at least one maple tree on whatever property I owned.  If they were the right kind, maybe I should have sapped them.

 
 

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