Sweeter times ahead for Ontario maple farmers during syrup season

Ontario maple farmers optimistic for a bounce-back year as consumers shift to buying and travelling local

When the pandemic turned even the busiest cities into ghost towns, Maple Grove Syrup pivoted their operations to a roadside stand. It was a far cry from the Severn, Ontario maple syrup farm’s usual operations (the 50-acre sugar bush is known for their tours and special events), but owner and operator, Brent Beers, says they managed to remain successful by taking orders for their pure maple syrup online and over the phone and offering roadside pickup at the stand.

“Old school thinking was shut the doors and don’t let anybody in, but we had to think outside the box,” says Beers.

Amid pandemic-related restrictions and closures, Maple Grove Syrup is one of Ontario’s many small-scale maple farms forced to diversify to stay afloat. Now, with the 2022 maple syrup season ahead, local producers are hoping for bigger yields and more excitement surrounding Ontario’s first agricultural product of the year.

COVID restrictions are lifting, but it’s not quite business as usual

Greg Bray and his family own and manage Maple Heights Farms in Innisfil. A big part of their long-term business plan relies on visitors. “When we started this, the goal was to have people coming through and doing tours,” says Bray. But for about two years, Maple Heights Farms was closed to the public. To make ends meet, they set up a self-serve shed selling bagged firewood.

Today, they still offer the firewood service and their Sugar Shack is finally open to the public. But the pandemic has driven up the price of maple syrup bottles by 100 per cent, Bray says, and Maple Heights Farms has yet to receive any sort of government funding. Bray anticipates it will take some time to get back on track.

“This has put us back, but it’s put every business back,” says Bray. “With everything opening up, it’s going to be more normal than the last two years, but I don’t think it’s going to be back to where we were.”

A more promising season weather-wise

Like most types of farming, maple farming is heavily contingent on the weather. The sweet spot for maple tapping is 5 C during the day and -5 C at night. This kind of fluctuation, freezing and thawing, creates ideal pressure for sap running. Conversely, persistent cold weather without any warm periods or persistent warm weather without any freezing periods can cause the sap to flow poorly or not flow at all.

Photo Courtesy: Brent Beers

Last year, temperatures rose in the spring and continued into summer, cutting the tapping season short. But Bray feels far more optimistic about the spring ahead.

“This is more of a traditional winter from 20 years ago, back when we used to have more snow and it was colder. The production side is looking very positive,” says Bray. “We’ve got a frozen ground. It’s frozen down several feet. We’ve got great snow. It’s showing that we’re going to have a lot of moisture in the spring. So, all that’s looking like it’s going to be a great run when it’s here.”

Farms are taking time to regroup and improve

Alison Nugent is a member of Kallonen Maple Farm, a multi-generational maple syrup operation in Cambridge. “This year, we started gaining more momentum and more speed as things have lifted. And for me, I’ve had more time to invest in it,” she says. “But I’ve shifted things slightly.”

Prior to the pandemic, she was trying to get their product into restaurants. Now, she’s redirecting her efforts to in-house sales and local farmers’ markets. She’s also in the midst of expanding Kallonen Maple Farm’s product line to include maple sugar, maple butter, hard and soft maple candy and maple candles, enlisting the farm’s customer-base to be her product testers.

Photo Courtesy: @kallonenmaplefarm/Instagram

“We do want to eventually bring back tours. We’ve done tours before, and they were good, but it was limited. We decided that we were going to take the next year to improve them,” says Nugent. In the meantime, the demand is there.

“We’ve got a lot of inquiries. Far more inquiries this year than in previous years about tours… I think the pandemic has definitely shifted a lot of people’s perception on what they want to do with their time,” she says.

There’s a growing emphasis on shopping and travelling local

A visit to an Ontario maple farm is the quintessential Canadian staycation, and a great way to support local producers. Moreover, Ontario maple farms are revving up for a festive, action-packed spring season, with events like Tap Into Maple and Maple Weekend just around the corner.

“I think the public is really wanting to get out. You get the nice, little bit warmer weather, you get the sunshine,” Beers says. “We’re hoping during these events and on weekends that people will come up to our farm and have a tour.”

And if a tractor-drawn sleigh ride through a sugar bush doesn’t appeal to you, the taste of Ontario maple syrup just might.

“It always does taste better than the grocery store,” says Nugent. “You know where it comes from, it’s a lot closer to home, so you know that there’s that impact that’s a lot less on the environment. It’s not travelling, it’s not being stored, it’s not anything. And it tends to taste better when it’s designed to be consumed a lot faster.”

Article exclusive to STREETS OF TORONTO