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Maple syrup producers waiting on a deep freeze

With the maple syrup season fast approaching, producers and industry-members were in Elmira for an “information day” hosted by OMSPA. Representatives from Ontario’s Ministry of Agriculture (OMAFRA), the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the International Maple Syrup Institute were amongst those invited to speak at the day-long event. [Veronica Reiner / The Observer]

The chilling cold of Canada’s winter has long been the herald of the coming maple syrup season. And though the weather has been less dependably chilly than usual, syrup producers in the area are already thinking about the upcoming harvest. In anticipation of that first tap, almost 200 producers and industry professionals from across the region converged on Elmira last week for a day-long seminar on all things syrup.

Hosted by the Waterloo-Wellington local of the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers’ Association (OMSPA) at the Elmira Lions Hall, the “information day” covered the gamut of subjects from new government regulations and guidelines to best practices and industry changes.

“Our info day, the idea behind it is really in the title itself. We want to transfer all the information we can to our members,” said Terry Hoover, president of the Waterloo-Wellington group and past-president of OMSPA.

Though an ancient practice in North America even by agricultural standards, the production of maple syrup is a complex and ever-changing endeavour. As with any food industry, there’s a raft of regulations and rules to keep track of, and keeping producers up-to-speed on those requirements is key, says Hoover.

“A lot of new regulations [are] coming down the pipe, and this is one thing we’re trying to stay ahead of,” he said. “Everything is volunteer now, so we want everybody to do the latest [industry practices]. We don’t want it to turn into a government regulations and they’re going to send around a pile of inspectors and make you do it. We’re really hoping by us educating, [maple syrup producers will] do it on their own.”

The day wasn’t all work, however, and attentions were also turned to the upcoming maple-themed events that come with the harvest – the Elmira Maple Syrup Festival being the largest amongst them. Beyond that was some information on the Maple Weekend, organized by OMSPA, which begins on the same day as the Elmira festival (April 6 this year) but continues on into the following day.

“But I don’t really view it as competing against them. I think it’s working with them, because all these people come to this big huge fantastic crowd on Saturday, and they come to our place on Sunday,” said Hoover.

The event encourages the public to visit syrup producers across the province, with participating producers listed on the website.

Before the big, syrup-laden celebrations can take place, though, the trees need to be tapped. And celebrating that important milestone is the annual first tap ceremony which, is set for February 22. Once again, the event will be held at the Snyder Heritage Farms on 1213 Maple Bend Rd., Woolwich.

Whether the ceremonial first tap will line up with the actual tapping of the sugar bushes will largely depend on the weather. Last year, an early start to the season pushed production ahead by weeks, causing Hoover to dub the first tap ceremony the “last tap.”

“I can’t tell you what’s going to happen next year. I remember the one year we had the worst drought all summer, and everybody said ‘there’s no moisture anywhere, there’s going be no sap.’ And then we had a decent sap year. So go figure – Mother Nature is fickle.

“But what I do know is we haven’t had a decent winter, but if you look at the forecast, we’re getting winter this coming weekend,” he said, pointing to the minus-20°C lows forecasted.

“So it’s going to be cold. That’s what we need. We need a freeze, and that’s what makes the maples work. Once we get into the spring, that freeze-thaw cycle is what produces the sap, and that’s what we all wait for.”

More farmers across Ontario will be crossing their fingers for a cold winter, as the industry has been on the rise in the province.

While Quebec reigns as Canada’s undisputed syrup-producing powerhouse, pumping out 11 million gallons of the sweet stuff in 2017 compared with Ontario’s 425,000, Ontario has seen a significant rise in the number of maple farms in the province. According to Statistics Canada, between 2011 and 2016, the number of maple farms in Ontario grew 12 per cent, or by 330 farms to 3,003. Quebec, by comparison, grew by just 2 per cent over the same time period.

“The industry is expanding eight to 10 per cent each year, so that’s nice. We’re not receding, we’re going ahead,” said Hoover. “That’s Ontario overall.”

Closer to home, the numbers are harder to pin down, but Hoover says he sees more of the same.

“I would still say the Waterloo Region would fall into that,” he said of the industry’s growth here. “Because every time I turn around, I hear another guy adding a couple of hundred taps here, a couple of hundred taps there. So I’m sure we’re expanding too.”

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