You know the weather’s wonky when people turn up at Quebec sugar shacks in March wearing shorts and Hawaiian-print shirts.
Savouring maple treats, along with baked beans and tourtière, is an end-of-winter ritual in Quebec that’s typically set against a backdrop of snow-edged forests. But this year, at cabanes à sucre like the Erablière Charbonneau outside Montreal, customers shunned coats and boots amid temperatures more suitable for barbecue season than sugaring-off season.
“It was something special to see,” co-owner Denis Charbonneau said on Wednesday.
The busy traffic at Mr. Charbonneau’s sugar-shack helped offset another weather-induced phenomenon: A disastrous maple-syrup season. This is the time of year when producers are normally still tapping trees and boiling sap for the iconic springtime practice of maple-syrup production.
Instead, record warm weather in March abruptly halted production for many farmers in southern and western Quebec, who experienced harvests at 50 to 75 per cent of normal levels.
Serge Beaulieu has been making syrup for 31 years. Instead of heading out to collect sap on Wednesday at his farm in Ormstown, an hour’s drive southwest of Montreal, he was washing out his plastic tubing and counting his blessings that the past two years’ harvests were good.
His season, which usually extends into early April, ended last week.
“This is the shortest season I’ve experienced in 30 years,” he said. “We’re completely dependent on Mother Nature.”
For maple-syrup lovers, what happens in Quebec matters. Quebec is the Saudi Arabia of maple-syrup production. The province alone supplies about three quarters of the world market, and 90 per cent of Canada’s maple syrup.
Like any dominant player, Quebec carefully manages its resource. Lest anyone worry about price fluctuations and year-to-year shortages, the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers maintains an “International Strategic Reserve” for its golden product. One major cache of syrup is in the village of Saint-Antoine-de-Tilly, southwest of Quebec City.
The massive stockpiles, which currently hold 37 million pounds of sweet stuff in inventory, allows producers to maintain stable pricing while ensuring supply to markets. (Most maple-syrup exports from across Canada head to the United States, followed by Japan and Germany).
“It lets Quebec maintain a supply of maple syrup from one year to the next regardless of years with poor production,” said Professor Sylvain Charlebois of the University of Guelph, who compares Quebec’s dominance in maple syrup to Saskatchewan and potash. “They try to counteract the unpredictable effect of the weather.”
Other maple-syrup producers are seeing lower production this year. In Ontario, some producers are experiencing a third their normal harvest as hopes for a good crop evaporate with each bursting of a maple-tree bud.
Still, the sugar season may yet be salvageable in other areas of Quebec. The majority of Quebec’s 7,400 syrup producers are still tapping trees in the eastern part of the province, and a return to more seasonable temperatures this week is keeping farmers hopeful they’ll have a good season. To get sap flowing, maple-syrup producers need cold nights and mild temperatures during the day.
Not everyone, however, is worried about the impact of rising temperatures on Quebec’s production. Simon Trépanier, assistant director of the Quebec maple syrup federation, says that U.S. producers stand to suffer more from a warming trend than those in Canada. Production is down this year in the U.S.’s main syrup producing states – Vermont, Maine, Wisconsin and New York.
“If North America is getting warmer, it’s the American producers who will get the brunt of it,” Mr. Trépanier said.