Syrup lovers expected to beat around the bush after two years away from the ‘Sweet Outdoors’

Sugar Bush
Sugar Bush

While many Quebec sugar-shack operators credit the pandemic with revitalizing their industry through online sales and home deliveries, most Eastern Ontario maple producers hope that syrup lovers will flow back to the bush this season.

The traditional maple experience requires that customers show up in person at one of the many sugaring operations in the region to witness sap gathering and reduction into syrup, enjoy a pancake breakfast and snow-frozen toffee, take a horse-drawn wagon ride, purchase souvenirs in on-site gift jobs, and return home with a great maple buzz. 

That was mostly missing during the two years that COVID-19 shut down on-site activities. With commercial bushes cleared to open this season, are consumers ready to once again return to the “Sweet Outdoors” and enjoy Ontario’s first crop?

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The first test was this past weekend, April 2-3, with the annual Maple Weekend, the premier event staged by the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers Association (OMSPA). It’s a province-wide open house with a cluster of locations in this region.

OMSPA president Frank Heerkens, based in Chesterville, said that about 64 producers across the province signed up to host Maple Weekend events, compared to 90 pre-pandemic. About 22 are in Eastern Ontario.

“Some are still concerned about opening their gates to unmasked strangers,” Heerkens noted. “Under the circumstances, 64 is a good number.”

While the essential mix of warm and cold weather has been good and this year’s sap flow for the most part has been excellent, there have been several obstacles to getting back to full production at regional syrup operations, including manpower and material shortages, said Earl Stanley of Stanley’s Olde Maple Lane Farm near Metcalfe.

The material shortages are preventing Stanley from opening his expansive pancake house this season. He’s opting instead for two food trucks on the premises, where guests can admire a menagerie of farm animals while getting up close to syrup production.

Supply chain slowdowns have prompted Fulton’s Sugar Bush & Maple Shop in Pakenham to order syrup bottles and other containers much sooner than usual. Also, staffing is down from about 35 to 10. The former pancake house is now part of an expanded gift shop.

Hunter’s Sugar Shack east of Spencerville is already back to something like business as usual, with full, in-person pancake breakfasts every Saturday and Sunday through May 1.

While the same pandemic problems occurred in Quebec, at least 50 producers there rebounded with a high-profile bilingual marketing campaign inviting consumers to enjoy “Ma cabane a la maison”, or “Home Sweet Home.”

The idea was to provide as much of the sugar-shack experience as possible, including the gut-busting meal, but in a take-away box. There was even a deal with Spotify to feature a selection of foot-tapping sugar-shanty tunes.

Now Quebec producers are looking at a hybrid marketing model: open for limited on-site dining, with take-home meals also available online and at the door. Participating Quebec operators had already observed that in-person visits to sugar bushes had been fading even prior to the pandemic and the online campaign brought in first-time customers, who now want the service maintained. They’re calling it a new chapter in Quebec sugar-shack history.

While there’s no such elaborate online program in Ontario, it could be worth looking at, said Heerkens, adding that many of his members do offer packaged syrup and other basic products online, with curbside pickup and home delivery.

This time of year, Heerkens is hyper-busy collecting sap in three locations, including his home at On the Bend sugar bush south of Chesterville, the bush at Kemptville Campus Agroforestry Centre, and Oschmann Forest Conservation Area, home of South Nation Conservation’s Maple Education program, which was canceled for the third year in a row.

Prior to the pandemic, the program welcomed about 1,000 students a season bussed in for hands-on education about the syrup industry dating back to the First Nations. School field trips continue to be restricted across Eastern Ontario, reducing Oschmann to self-guided walks.

At Kemptville, Heerkens is boiling down the spring harvest with assistant Karen Bedard and is happy with the result and looking forward to a good season.

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