In July, 2012, French Canadian accountants were walking through rows of blue containers, full of maple syrup. The men were in a Quebec warehouse, doing inventory on a 16,000-barrel stockpile maintained by a Canadian cartel of syrup producers known colloquially as “The Federation.” When one accountant discovered underweight barrels, filled with water, an investigation was launched. The resulting news spread quickly – six million pounds of maple syrup had been stolen from the warehouse, in a heist as bold as it was bizarre.
The story was shared widely, and became the subject of a remarkable feature in Bloomberg Businessweek and a segment on The Daily Show, which drew mock parallels between Quebecois farmers and Mexican narcos. It created a glut of funny headlines, and brought attention to an industry vastly more sophisticated than the quaint image of a sugarbush – the fixture of syrup labels and marketing campaigns – might suggest. Maple syrup is a commodity business where Canada enjoys actual hegemony over the United States. More than 80 per cent of the world’s pure maple syrup is produced here, and the Quebec Federation serves as a kind of central bank, helping set global prices and balancing the world supply using their enviable strategic reserve. This is no small deal, since in 2013 one barrel of syrup could sell at a price 17 times higher than a barrel of crude oil. Douglas Whynott’s new book takes a close look at this industry, but from an American perspective, meaning the truly exciting heist of 2012 is relegated to the epilogue.
The Sugar Season focuses on the frustrated Americans, small farmers dwarfed by Canada’s long shadow. Whynott builds his study around the Bascoms, a family of producers from Vermont who have been in the syrup industry for generations. They clearly afforded Whynott plenty of access to the inner workings of their practice, and he describes it with intricate detail. The Bascom farm operates with help from a sophisticated networks of plastic tubes, which run like intravenous drips from the trees. The image is a stark contrast to the rustic notion of buckets dangling on spigots, and a perfect metaphor for how syrup-making has industrialized. While the clockwork of syrup production is sometimes fascinating, Whynott burrows into levels of detail that might turn off casual readers.
The author also spends a lot of time digging into the Bascom family history. The current patriarch, Bruce, is a former business student who selflessly returned to apply his acumen on the family farm. While he’s smart and earnest, he lacks colour when weighed against his Canadian counterparts. For example, he’s no Real Bureau, a Quebec maple baron introduced midway into the story. Bureau is a feared syrup “trader” who speculates on the market like a Wall Street scoundrel, and uses his own reserves to flood or starve the Vermont supply. Whynott gives Bureau a one-chapter cameo, describing him nearly bankrupting his family on a particularly risky gamble, losing his marriage and gaining a fortune in the process. A brash high roller like Bureau might deserve a book of his own, but the author keeps his focus on the Bascoms, who are not quite so mythic.
Still, the book provides keen insights into this particular branch of modern agriculture, and makes a strong case for maple syrup as a bellwether for the continent’s environmental health. Season is largely set in 2012, a year marked by some of the warmest winter temperatures since the United States began keeping records. Trees rely on a rhythmic cycle of mild days and below-freezing nights to produce free-flowing sap, and either mild or unusually cold winters can be ruinous. As North Carolina temperatures migrate to the usually frigid Vermont, Whynott, and many of his subjects, wonder if there is any room left for smaller producers, who live and die on the well-being of their crop. The book becomes elegiac in the last few chapters, as Bascom and others around him look to the future and see only bank loans and thinning profit margins. In his desperation, Bascom actually purchased some of the discounted syrup from the Great Heist of 2012, though he insists this was done unwittingly. Turns out hot winters create a market for hot syrup, one revelation of many in a book about this widely misunderstood industry.
Chris Berube is a writer and radio producer. His work has appeared in The Walrus, CBC.ca and The New York Times.