Under a towering cover of trees, a farm worker hammers a spout into a sugar maple with a brisk toc-toc-toc that breaks the forest silence. Sap soon starts to drip out, in a late-winter ritual that has flowed through the generations in rural Quebec.
But there’s something novel about this centuries-old picture: The man wielding the mallet is named Marco Rizo, and until he left his village in Guatemala, he had never seen a maple leaf or known what it felt like to have the cold freeze your fingers.
Mr. Rizo is at the forefront of a new reality on Quebec’s maple-syrup farms. As farms get bigger and Quebec unemployment dips to historic lows, producers are facing a labour crunch. And they’re turning to foreign workers like Mr. Rizo to rescue them.
“He knows his way in the woods, he knows the tasks. He’s excellent,” said Alexandre Bourdeau, the maple producer who hires Mr. Rizo. “And we can’t find people here to do the work.”
Canadians may be forgiven for thinking that maple-syrup production involves folkloric scenes of horse-drawn wagons hauling sap in metal buckets; that is, after all, the picture on the maple syrup can. Some farms still operate the traditional way, in an ancestral practice that unfolds each year when winter yields to the warming embrace of spring. It’s been said that a Québécois is a Frenchman who has survived 400 winters (and he probably tapped a maple tree at some point).
But one doesn’t become the globe’s superpower of sap on mythology. Quebec, which produces 72 per cent of the world’s maple syrup, hit record production highs last year. The province has 7,500 producers – 675 more than a decade ago – and they’re setting up 46 million taps for this season’s harvest. That’s more than double the number of taps three decades ago.
“When we talk about 46 million taps, that’s 46 million holes that have to be made in trees. A human being pierces those holes, not a machine. Somebody needs to hold the drill and tap the tree,” says Simon Trépanier, executive director of the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers. “It’s enormous. That’s why we need more manpower.”
The growth in production coincides with an unemployment rate of only 5.6 per cent in the province – lower in some rural regions. That’s made it tough for maple producers to recruit staff for seasonal work.
So they are starting to depend on men like Mr. Rizo. Mr. Bourdeau, whose sugar bush is located on Lac-Simon between Ottawa and Montreal, put up want ads at local supermarkets and tried hiring through his agricultural federation. Nothing worked, so he applied to hire outside Canada through the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.
Mr. Bourdeau covers the cost of Mr. Rizo’s return airfare from Guatemala and pays him hourly according to the Quebec minimum wage – currently $11.25 an hour, rising to $12 on May 1. Mr. Rizo will remain at Mr. Bourdeau’s maple farm for 10 to 12 weeks, working at peak times for more than 90 hours a week.
For Mr. Bourdeau, the arrangement gives him a crucial source of reliable manpower. For Mr. Rizo, it means he earns in two months what it would take him a year to make in Guatemala, he says.
First, however, he had to get acclimatized to the job. Mr. Rizo had worked on mango and orange trees in his Central American country, where he lives 20 kilometres from the Pacific coast. The first time he arrived at Mr. Bourdeau’s Érablière du Lac-Simon last year, he tried walking in the woods in his boots and sank into the snow up to his waist.
Now in his second season, he’s become adept at the job and posts photos of himself on Facebook posing proudly in snowshoes at the maple farm. His job often entails heading out on an all-terrain vehicle to check for leaks in the plastic tubing that transports sap to the sugar house; it’s strung up between the trees like a sort of highway grid.
Mr. Rizo has a room in the house he shares with Mr. Bourdeau and co-owner Yanick Lefrançois (the two men also leave their families in another part of Quebec to operate the maple farm for the season). The three watch the Canadiens on the big-screen TV in the living room. Mr. Rizo uses the house WiFi to speak on FaceTime with his wife, Maria Elizabeth, who just gave birth to the couple’s third child. Mr. Bourdeau lends Mr. Rizo the car so he can go grocery shopping.
Some growers in Quebec have been accused of abuse and mistreatment of foreign farmworkers. Mr. Rizo’s only complaint is that he would like to work more.
“They treat me like a friend,” he said about his employers, in an interview next to the radiant heat of the home’s wood-burning stove. “It’s what helps me tolerate the cold and get by when I’m here. They’re different from the bosses in Guatemala. Over there, you can’t talk to them.”
Foreign workers have been a presence on Quebec farms for decades. They’ve been picking tomatoes and lettuce since the mid-70s, and are now milking cows, planting flowers and chopping Christmas trees through the year. Nearly 1,000 Quebec farms are employing 11,500 foreign workers this year, almost all of them from Mexico and Guatemala.
They’re providing the muscle to replace a local work force that is increasingly turning its back on farm labour. Across Canada, three quarters of the labour gap in agriculture has been filled by temporary foreign workers, and work force shortages are projected to double by 2025, according to the Conference Board of Canada.
“It used to be easier for [farms] to find steady workers,” Fernando Borja, director of Ferme, which administers the foreign farm worker program in Quebec. “Now, people can go work at Walmart or Tim Hortons for the same pay. Plus, a lot of young people aren’t staying in their village. ”
The growing presence of a Spanish-speaking work force has meant adjustments for the farmers, too. Some are turning to the classroom to learn to speak the same language as their employees, and a number of agricultural training centres are offering Spanish classes specifically geared to farming.
“Instead of ordering a beer like we do when we go south on vacation, they’re learning specific lexicons, ” said Sandra Lapierre of the Centre de formation agricole de Mirabel, northwest of Montreal.
“For example, if you’re working in fruits and vegetables, you’ll learn sentences [in Spanish] like, ‘Go clear the weeds at the end of the field’, ” Ms. Lapierre said. “They learn very practical things. ”
For now, the labour shortage could translate into a drop of 5 to 7 per cent in the volume of the harvest, estimates Serge Beaulieu, president of the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers. But the labour crunch is only going to get tighter, he predicts.
“I’ve never heard so many producers say they’re ready to look at foreign workers as this year, ” he said. “I won’t talk about a crisis, but finding manpower in rural areas is becoming a challenge. We have to turn to other solutions. ”
The answers are likely to be embodied by people like Mr. Rizo, who are helping sustain a tradition that is quintessentially Quebec.
The Global Strategic Maple Syrup Reserve in Quebec keeps about $100-million of the syrup safe. See inside the facility and how it protects its stockpile of liquid gold, with security that has been likened to a bank.
Globe and Mail Update