Heat wave results in short season, lost profits for Eastern Ontario syrup producers
By Brandy Harrison
Itís only the fourth time in 40 years Bevan McGarry has made maple syrup before March 17 and unseasonably warm weather this year meant he didnít make much ó only a quarter of his usual 2,000- to 3,000-litre harvest, amounting to nearly $35,000 in lost revenue.
"Itís a devastating difference," says the owner of Mapleton House, who has 2,500 taps in his Bancroft-area sugar bush. "It should be winter. A few weeks ago we were running through the bush on the Ski-Doo and we canít take it anywhere now because thereís no snow."
He and his wife Linda donít just sell syrup; itís in many of the dishes they serve at their restaurant and banquet facility. Theyíll be buying syrup to make up for production shortfall, even though sap was still running on March 29. "We may pull a rabbit out yet," McGarry says.
Temperatures in Eastern Ontario flip flopped from -26 C to 26 C in a two-week span in March, a far cry from the beautiful syrup weather that spawned last yearís seven-week, high-yielding season.
Collecting sap depends on a freeze-thaw cycle of -5 C at night and 5 C during the day. Too much warm weather causes the sap to stay in the branches as the tree prepares to bud. Pembroke producer Ray Bonenberg says vacuum systems, which create a pressure difference that allows sap to flow more freely, do help, but not much if the weather isnít right.
"You canít go and kick the tree and say Ďwhy donít you co-operate with me,í and have the sap run, even though I sometimes do. It makes me feel a bit better," jokes the president of the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers Association. "Mother Nature is a cruel teacher."
David Hahn usually waits until March to put in his 1,200 taps, but this year the owner of Forest Farm, near Westport, tapped the last week of February. Despite the early start, heíll operate at a loss, only pulling in a third of his usual harvest.
With less than half of his usual production, even Cecil Cass, whose LíOriginal farm is east of Ottawa, says itíll be his worst year since the 1998 ice storm. "Prices havenít increased much in the last number of years, so it would help if they go up a little bit," says Cass.
Not all of Ontarioís 2,900 revenue-claiming syrup producers had a bad year. Southwestern Ontario had good yields, as did northern U.S. states. But Quebec has been hard hit. On the upside, syrup quality is high. Hahn says despite the short season it was classic syrup-making weather.
Long-term studies suggest the syrup season is starting eight to 11 days earlier than it did four decades ago.
Bonenberg says that even after 40 years, he still canít predict how a season will unfold. He was baffled when sap was pouring out of his sugar bush during the March heat wave, but thatís what makes it fascinating.
"The more I learn about sugaring, the less I know. Every day is a new day."