As the pandemic enters its second spring, local maple syrup producers tap into direct relationships with customers

·5 min read

WATERLOO REGION — Life in the sugar bush runs as it always has.

“It’s a normal spring for producers,” says Kevin Snyder, president of the Waterloo-Wellington chapter of the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers Association. “They’re tapping their trees normally. They’re processing sap normally, and they’re making local maple syrup.”

Terry Hoover of Hoover’s Maple Syrup agrees.

“The honest to God truth when it comes to farming, nothing much has changed for us,” says Hoover, who won producer of the year ahead of last year’s Elmira Maple Syrup Festival. “We still go outside seven days a week, we still work seven days a week.”

But the marketing aspect of the job has changed practically overnight. There were two big blows to local producers’ marketing in spring 2020 when the pandemic hit, says Snyder:

The Elmira Maple Syrup Festival was cancelled.

The provincewide Maple Weekend open-house event where producers showcase their syrup operations to the public was cancelled.

Many local maple syrup producers had to find new ways to market to their customers, says Snyder.

Hoover says his sales fell “through the basement.” He says 17 bus tours cancelled on him in one day, and he couldn’t hand out product samples. That hurt, because the taste test is what really gets people to buy, he says.

“That’s how we sell our syrup. Once you’ve tasted real maple syrup, there’s no selling. It sells itself. So yeah, I don’t know when we’re going to be able to do sampling again, but hey, we’ll wait.”

Snyder says producers have told him customers started making trips to their local producers when they couldn’t get to them at the festivals.

As the pandemic wore on, he says many producers saw an increased demand for maple syrup with people at home cooking and baking more. One of his customers told him he was serving his kids pancakes once a week, up from once a month.

Hoover, like many producers, changed his sales model. He now offers curbside pickup and contactless payment.

Although sales were not as vigorous as they typically are at the beginning of the year, people continued to buy maple syrup steadily through 2020 — especially as maple syrup has gained popularity as an ingredient, not just a topping.

Hoover says he has only three drums left from last year’s harvest, which is a good place to be.

He can still give tours of up to 10 people at a time, so he’s optimistic that with March break pushed to April, the nicer weather may bring more people to visit in person.

Wally Sallans, who runs Maple Tap Farm in New Dundee, says his family started selling breakfast boxes that include their maple syrup and partnered with a local fruit and vegetable seller to get more syrup into customers’ hands. He also reports an increase in wholesale and farm-gate sales.

All told, the year turned out all right for local producers, says Snyder.

Making direct contact with consumers is important for maple syrup producers. About 90 Ontario producers were planning to participate in the open-house Maple Weekend this year, Snyder says.

The event started in New York state about 25 years ago. Today about 180 producers participate. The New York State Maple Association reports producers anticipate 50 per cent of their year’s retail sales will happen on Maple Weekend.

Shopping local is especially important for maple syrup products. Like wine, each area of the province produces a signature flavour due to the unique nutrient makeup in the soil, says Snyder.

Snyder does see a potential upside to the Elmira Maple Syrup Festival going virtual for 2021, as it will be accessible to the entire world, and hopefully more people will become interested and visit in person when next it runs.

Tapping maple sap is uncertain at the best of times. Hoover says the uncertainty is the only constant in maple syrup producing.

When daytime temperatures are over five degrees Celsius, and nighttime temperatures stay below minus five degrees Celsius, producers must be ready to work when the sap is running, and ready to boil it into syrup as quickly as possible. Sap will spoil if it is left out in warm weather, and the amount of oxygen sap is exposed to influences its flavour and colour, says Hoover.

The hectic work will continue for a month to about six weeks, and only stop when they hear the frogs start singing.

“Once the buds pop on the tree, we’re done. It makes muddy syrup, and that’s really foul tasting. You can’t dilute it, you can’t mix it, you can’t do anything,” says Hoover. “Nine years out of 10, when the frogs sing in the swamp, the buds have popped on the tree. So when we hear the frogs singing, we know we’re done for the year.”

Hoover is grateful for his network of syrup producers across the province. He says the members of the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers Association look out for each other, mentor new producers and help each other if there are questions or something goes wrong. He’s looking forward to being able to gather again for tours and potlucks.

Leah Gerber’s reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. The funding allows her to report on stories about the Grand River Watershed. Email lgerber@therecord.com

Leah Gerber, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Waterloo Region Record