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Sticky situation

Competition fierce in maple-syrup industry

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/2/2014 (2278 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There are many flavours in this affectionate look at the maple-syrup industry in the United States, along with a light taste of the Canadian flow.

American author Douglas Whynott's The Sugar Season (on sale Tuesday) includes nostalgia, family histories, business competition, technological development, the free-market approach of the U.S. (compared to the marketing-board approach of Quebec) and, as a disturbing subtext, environmental concern.

One drip at a time, sap from maple trees is collected to be cooked over an arch, or wood-burning stove, to make syrup.


One drip at a time, sap from maple trees is collected to be cooked over an arch, or wood-burning stove, to make syrup.

The nostalgia comes from stories about the way things used to be, handling antiquated equipment and visiting sites now overgrown or crumbling with someone who can bring all of these to life. After all, what was once a craft is now a multimillion-dollar industry where a barrel of maple syrup is worth more than a barrel of oil. Readers who enjoy stories about "the good old days," so to speak, would be well-served by turning to last fall's A Good Day's Work by John DeMont.

Family histories are focused on the Bascom family: from the demanding, workaholic patriarch, Ken, to the entrepreneurial Bruce, a risk-taker on a quest for bigger and better syrup production. This is mostly set in New Hampshire, although Whynott travels through the maple tree states, including Vermont, with visits to Canada.

For lovers of uphill-both-ways-to-school stories we learn of Bruce's childhood: "Ken had him up at 5:30 on some days and in the woods by 6:00, and kept Bruce gathering until after dark, only to have him up again at 5:30 the next morning." As well, we learn of Bruce clearing rocks from the hay fields by hand to earn extra money to buy an engagement ring.

The competition between producers is sly, with cards held close to the vest. The Bascoms keep track of decades' worth of quantities on a wall chart, with attention paid to past winter snowfalls and temperatures. They trade in bulk syrup, the finished product and speculate on maple syrup futures.

There's roughly a six-week period to tap the trees and collect the sap. The sap won't run unless there's a cooling overnight and warmer days or, as the author puts it, "the extent of the shock is equivalent to the rate of the flow."

In terms of technology, The Sugar Season does a good job of taking us from the days of the tin buckets and wooden spouts to vacuum pumps and tubing, also providing readers with a look to the future.

As to the conflicting economic approaches, Quebec produces 80 per cent of the world's maple syrup crop and has been accused of operating a cartel. With controlled prices, the great 2012 maple syrup heist of six million pounds of syrup isn't surprising -- call it market forces at work across the longest undefended border in the world.

Finally, the maple tree is the industry's canary in the coal mine, according to the author, and the signs are not encouraging. Summing up his thoughts on climate change, pollution and the impact on the maple syrup industry, Whynott suggests the continuing change in temperatures and rainfall may move production further north in Quebec, to the detriment of the U.S. producers.

Whynott is not in the class of John McPhee or David Macaulay, but makes you pause and appreciate a nibble on a maple leaf sugar candy or having reached for your maple toffee in the snow at Festival du Voyageur.


Ron Robinson is a writer/broadcaster who wants it known that lips that have touched artificial syrup will never touch his.


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Updated on Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 8:17 AM CST: Tweaks formatting.

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