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Steve Cote, a maple sugar producer, poses in his tapped forest in Sawyerville, Quebec, April 17, 2013. (Christinne Muschi For The Globe and Mail)
Steve Cote, a maple sugar producer, poses in his tapped forest in Sawyerville, Quebec, April 17, 2013. (Christinne Muschi For The Globe and Mail)

Raids on Quebec maple-syrup ‘delinquents’ leaves producer with bitter taste Add to ...

Quebec’s maple-syrup syndicate is cracking down on rogue sugar shacks, seizing the sweet-tooth assets of producers who are alleged to be flouting the province’s strict regulation of sap.

Steve Côté, owner of a 450-acre spread in the Eastern Townships south of Sherbrooke, was stunned Tuesday morning to see a bailiff and three men in two tractor trailers pull in with a court-approved order to seize his entire 2013 production: about 100 barrels and several boxes containing hundreds of cans.

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The booty – seized and held by the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers – is worth an estimated $100,000 to $125,000, said Mr. Côté, whose family enterprise has had run-ins with the federation before.

The federation – which has authority over all maple-syrup production and marketing in the province and is essentially a legal cartel – alleges that renegade producers are circumventing rules agreed to by all members.

It claims they refuse to participate in the quota system, report their inventory or transfer any of their surplus into an “international strategic reserve” used to help make up for poor seasons and to stabilize prices.

“They left with my revenue for the year,” Mr. Côté said about Tuesday’s day-long operation, which included taking a thorough inventory of the syrup.

The store of syrup is to be sealed and warehoused until the matter is resolved, either in court or through negotiation. Mr. Côté has five days to contest Tuesday’s seizing of his syrup.

Two other maple-syrup producers in the Eastern Townships and Beauce areas were also raided Tuesday.

“It was like a blitz,” said Mr. Côté, who refuses to join the federation’s membership of about 7,400 producers but is nonetheless bound by its rules.

“It seems the goal is to choke us until we give in.”

Federation assistant director Paul Rouillard said the raids were conducted because of suspicions that the producers were in breach of the production and marketing rules.

“There will always be some delinquents in any association,” said Mr. Rouillard, pointing out that the provincial Agriculture and Food Marketing Board oversaw a vote in 1989 that gave the federation control over all maple-syrup production and marketing, followed by another vote in 2012 creating the quota system for bulk sales.

Any malcontents should realize that maple-syrup prices have soared over the past 10 years thanks to the federation’s ability to organize production and marketing so as to avoid volatile price swings and value-destroying surpluses or shortages, Mr. Rouillard said.

“They’ve benefited from the colossal undertaking of this federation.”

Still, a black market has developed over the years as frustrated producers decide they can do better selling outside the system.

A striking example of the underground channel in action is last year’s heist of about 10,000 barrels of stockpiled syrup at the federation’s “strategic reserve”: a rented depot in St.-Louis-de-Blandford.

The golden elixir was valued at about $20-million and part of the product made its way to buyers outside Quebec, some of whom may not have known it was stolen.

Quebec produces almost 80 per cent of the world’s maple syrup, but increasingly faces a threat from states such as New York and Vermont that have been ramping up production.

Critics say the Quebec federation is using unnecessarily police-like tactics in its crackdown and that it sets prices artificially low when most jurisdictions – notably in the United States – operate as free markets.

“I know a lot of members who would leave tomorrow if they could. They’ve had enough,” Mr. Côté said. “We need a marketing agency, yes, but if you want to develop on your own, you should have that choice.”

The federation says on its website that its measures are “imperative because the free market structure generated drove down revenue for producers, reduced the number of operating businesses, consolidated the remaining companies, and undermined the vitality of rural municipalities in Quebec.”

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