Frank Heerkens spent the first week of March busy doing one of the things he loves best: Preparing for the latest maple syrup season that was due to start flowing in a matter of days.
On this recent day, Heerkens was at the wooden sap transfer station he built at Kemptville Agroforestry Centre trying to figure out why a brand new pump wasn’t performing properly. His trusty after-school sidekick – granddaughter Madison Chretien – is working right alongside him.
They’ll have to get somebody in to fix it. What with maintaining pipeline, not to mention countless other chores, there’s too much to do and too little time even in a normal season, much less 2021, as Heerkens serves his inaugural term as president of the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers Association.
He’s the first president from the eastern region in 40 years and proud to be lead spokesman for Ontario’s first agricultural crop of any season, passed down to early settlers by the First Nations.
Busy, busy, busy! Heerkens is collecting sap from 1,000 taps at On the Bend, from 1,000 taps at the Kemptville bush now owned by the Municipality of North Grenville, and from 500 taps at Oschmann Forest Conservation Area north of Winchester, home of South Nation Conservation’s Maple Education program, which was cancelled for the second year in a row because of the virus.
The team of Heerkens and Madison thin the Kemptville bush, clear debris, install pipeline and taps as well as operate the gleaming evaporator on site. In return, they get all of the sap.
They do the same chores at On the Bend, with Madison claiming she’s into it not so much because she enjoys hard work but to keep an eye on her grandpa. At Oschmann, they merely buy and collect the sap while South Nation staff take care of the rest.
It’s a lot, but Heerkens wants to take on more because he feels there’s so much untapped potential in Ontario’s “vastly underutilized” syrup industry.
That’s why he purchased 96 acres near Perth, which he’ll develop as a working sugar bush over the next few years. All of his locations are certified sustainable by the Eastern Ontario Model Forest group.
As Heerkens outlined during the First Tap, in 2020 nearly four million litres of maple syrup were produced across Ontario, amounting to nearly $70 million in sales. That’s nearly double the output of 2011, and production could double again with provincial producers barely meeting the domestic demand, much less foreign requirements.
COVID-19 aside, last season broke production records set in 2019, and there’s no reason not to expect another excellent year in 2021. While the virus reduced on-farm sales last year, consumers became more interested in home cooking, and one of the ingredients they were looking for was pure maple syrup.
The OMPSA president called on provincial and federal governments in accessing funds and Crown forest preserves to help encourage the younger generation of maple producers to carry the torch forward.
As with most sugar bushes, there are no other live events planned at On The Bend this season; the focus will be on building online sales, curbside pickup and syrup delivery with no amount too small to drop off.
Syrup makers who’ve suffered most during COVID-19 have been those with pancake houses and no customers to fill them, said Heerkens, who doesn’t offer such an attraction.
While OMSPA’s traditional Maple Weekend in April was cancelled for the second year in a row due to COVID-19, relieving Heerkens of some extra duties, the ceremonial First Tap with invited dignitaries went ahead March 5 at Heerkens' home-based On the Bend Sugar Shack south of Chesterville.
The president hosts the event, and, in addition to welcoming COVID-curtailed dignitaries, Heerkens had to make sure all of the safety protocols were in place and followed to the letter. The last thing a sugar bush needs at the opening of the season is a run-in with the regional health unit.
COVID-19 permitting, OMSPA is planning a new fall open house to replace Maple Weekend, which has previously drawn up to 15,000 visitors across the province. Heerkens hopes to attract at least 5,000 province-wide in the fall.
If good to go, the fall event will occur between Sept. 25 and Oct. 3; similar to the April weekend, it will entice syrup lovers to visit participating sugar bushes, with the extra benefit of celebrating the fall colours and perhaps the opportunity to pick up seasonal produce such as pumpkins and apples.