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Amid massive shortage, Canada taps strategic reserves — of maple syrup

Quebec produces 73 percent of the world’s maple syrup supply but was hit with a shorter and warmer spring sugaring season, causing output to fall

(Getty Images)
5 min

Petroleum stockpiles aren’t the only strategic reserves being tapped this season amid concerns of supply shortages and sky-high prices.

The Canadian federation that controls close to three-quarters of the world’s maple syrup production recently announced it will release about 50 million pounds of maple syrup from its emergency stockpile — almost half of the reserve — to keep Quebec’s liquid gold flowing to breakfast tables worldwide.

The announcement from the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers (QMSP), first reported by Bloomberg News, comes after supply was strained by a drop in production and a pandemic-fueled surge in demand. Quebec produces 73 percent of the world’s maple syrup supply but was hit with a shorter and warmer spring sugaring season, which caused output to fall by nearly a quarter. Meanwhile, global sales jumped more than 36 percent from 2020, according to QMSP data.

Why is maple syrup controlled by a Quebec cartel anyway?

“This year’s production was lower overall, and it really was a combination of Mother Nature being uncooperative as far as a good season and the good news about maple syrup’s health benefits,” said Kevin McCormick, a seasoned maple syrup producer in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, which also saw a weather-related drop in production.

Representatives with QMSP did not immediately respond to interview requests Saturday, but spokeswoman Hélène Normandin told Bloomberg News last week that the federation maintains its strategic reserve to offset lean production years or spikes in demand.

“The pandemic helped in our case because we’re seeing people cook more at home and use more local products,” Normandin said.

The federation — often described in news reports as “the OPEC of maple syrup,” referring to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, or a “cartel” — has contended with threats to its lucrative stockpile before: A theft ring hit the QMSP warehouse in 2012 and made off with roughly 9,600 barrels of syrup valued at an estimated $18 million (two-thirds of the stolen supply was later recovered).

Maple syrup’s value stems in part from the precise conditions required for production.

Sugar maples, the most common maple tree species for syrup, grow almost exclusively in the northern and northeastern United States and in the Canadian southeast. Trees must be mature — typically 30 to 40 years old — before they can be tapped, and harvest conditions between midwinter and early spring must swing between freezing and warm in a single day.

“You need to have cold nights and then warm days, and that’s what makes the sap run because there’s pressure in the tree,” Matt Chagnon, a forestry professor at the University of New Hampshire, explains in a 2014 video on maple syrup harvesting.

Waffles of the world, rejoice — Canadian maple syrup thieves caught

Navindra P. Seeram, a professor of biomedical and pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Rhode Island, said sugar maples and their output are increasingly being tapped for alternative food products and nutrition and cosmetic uses such as anti-aging creams.

“It’s the new, hottest thing now,” he said of using maple-based cosmetics.

Growing consumer demand isn’t the only challenge to producers of maple syrup and other maple-derived products: Climate change and logging threaten to further stress the supply of healthy trees.

Similarly to Quebec, the Canadian province of Nova Scotia — where 600,000 taps are used to supply maple — suffered a decrease in syrup production this year from the coupling of a severe drought with an unseasonably warm winter in 2020.

Maple trees, McCormick said, were stressed from the double-whammy of events that lend themselves to a shortfall of moisture in the ground and a lack of the freezing and thawing cycles the plants need. Then, this year’s warmer spring further affected the trees’ production and the quality of their output.

“Unseasonably warm temperatures in the spring has effects on the production and quality of syrup, so we can’t make it into a commercial syrup,” he said. “Fourteen and 15 degrees Celsius [about 57 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit] is just not conductive to good maple production during the season because it advances the tree too quickly.”

With 35,000 taps, McCormick’s business usually produces up to about 15,600 U.S. gallons of syrup. He said he is hopeful about next year. After all, this summer brought above-average rainfall to Nova Scotia, and “the trees have done really well.” Yet, climate change — and the possibility of far more frequent severe weather events — continues to worry maple syrup producers.

“A lot depends on the unknown,” he said. “As in most commodities, we are dealing with the ongoing concerns about climate change, so we’re all here in the same boat.”

U.S. maple production also took a hit this year because of the warmer weather, said Adam Wild, a specialist with the Cornell Maple Program. What was produced contained a “drastically lower” concentration of sugar, he added. Whereas a typical ratio of sap to syrup is 40 parts to 1, this year it was 50 parts to 1 or higher. Previous growing season conditions and winter weather leading up to maple season could have had an effect.

“The reserve in Quebec helps to stabilize the U.S. maple market,” he said. “Quebec has more maple syrup in reserve than the U.S. is shown to produce in a single season.”

Seeram noted there’s a deeply rooted cultural significance to maples in North America, where Indigenous people tapped trees for centuries before European settlers arrived. He said finding more uses for maple products could boost conservation efforts and help connect people to the land.

“We want to really educate folks about how this is a nature product that’s unique to this part of the word — the plants are only found here,” he said.

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