There are usually about 5,800 to 6,000 taps in Fulton’s sugar bush near Pakenham.
That has dropped by about 1,000 taps this year after a derecho that chewed its way through Ontario in last May, pummelling Fulton’s and many other bushes.
Even assessing the damage took a long time because of all the trees that fell over trails on the 160-hectare property, said Scott Deugo, who operates Fulton’s with his mother, Shirley Fulton-Deugo. When he was finally able to get into the forest, Deugo used a GPS app to keep track of all of the damaged trees, and he had to “re-map” the sap pipeline.
It was impossible to get help, said Deugo, who enlisted sons Parker, 20, Tyson, 18, and Logan, 15, to clean up the mess in the summer heat while being mobbed by mosquitoes. “Anyone with a chainsaw between here and Montreal was busy. The scale of the work was jaw-dropping. We did it all ourselves.”
Deugo wasn’t the only maple syrup producer to feel that pain. Jules Rochon, who has a 10-hectare sugarbush near Hammond, east of Ottawa, said his sugar bush was flattened. Some trees lost their crowns, some were uprooted. Others that had been bowed down in the derecho returned to upright positions over the summer only to be bowed down again under the weight of heavy snowfall over the winter.
But they’re back in action in time for the 2023 syrup season.
Rochon estimates he spent about $54,000 cleaning up tress and debris and fixing pipeline. It’s almost impossible to insure a sugar bush.
What the damage means long-term remains to be seen. Rochon typically produces 2,500 litres of syrup a year. He’s hoping for 2,000 litres in 2023.
In an average year, every tap produces a litre of syrup. Rochon is keeping an eye on his per-tap production He’s concerned the trees might have sustained root damage, which would affect the sap yield from each tree. He’s also watching the sap’s sugar content, which can vary from .75 per cent to 3.5 per cent.
When a forest loses a lot of mature trees, it takes decades to recover. Rochon said that, if his production is cut by 500 litres a year at $20 a litre, it adds up to a $200,000 loss over the next 20 years. He will still have the same amount of equipment to maintain. It’s hard for producers to buy forested land because they have to compete with the residential market.
Not every sugar bush has been affected, as the derecho cut a fairly narrow swath across the province. Ray Bonenberg, owner of Mapleside Sugar Bush near Pembroke, said there was little damage in Renfrew County, except for the Calabogie area.
But some sugar bushes in Lanark County and east of Ottawa were hit hard.
The derecho shredded forests in strips, like ribbon, said Jamie Fortune, who owns Fortune Farms in Almonte and Clayton with his wife, Sherry. “It’s like you took a big comb and raked though the landscape.”
The sugar bush in Almonte was damaged, but not the one in Clayton, Fortune said. He had 7,901 taps on trees last year. This year, there are 7,744.
This is the third major weather event Fortune has been through. His forest took a beating in a microburst in 1997, followed by the ice storm a year later. Including the derecho damage, he’s had to rebuild the pipeline system three times in less than 30 years. But he’s optimistic about the future of the forest.
“If you work with the dynamics of the forest, it comes back,” Fortune said. “It’s just a matter of time.”
Deugo also sees reason to be be optimistic. Younger trees undamaged by the derecho on his farm look healthy, he said.
“They can’t be tapped yet, but the next generation of sugar maples is fine. That doesn’t help us today … Maybe my sons will tap those trees.”
Meanwhile, his family has been diversifying the business for decades.
“My grandfather was a visionary when he opened the pancake house,” Deugo said. “He said people would come from the city to see how food was made.”
They did. But the COVID-19 pandemic created new challenges. Fulton’s recently rebranded as Fulton’s Maple Sugar Bush & Maple Shop. The pancake house that had been a mainstay of the business since 1969 was permanently closed and the space was converted into a store offering maple products, local crafts and specialty foods, along with a maple tasting bar. Visitors can buy daily or weekly passes to walk, snowshoe or ski on the trails running through the property.
“We’ve changed, but we’re still here,” Deugo said. “The ability to change, grow and overcome is one of our greatest strengths.”
Other producers have managed risk in other ways. Bonenberg and Fortune have both experimented with planted maples in plantations, which presented their own challenges. Maples prefer not to grow in the open, and they’re attractive to deer and voles, which girdle the trunks. Bonenberg lost almost one-third of the trees he planted to a drought.
Fortune pruned the trees and enlisted his daughters to put rodent guards around the trunks every fall and to take them off every spring. He has started to tap those trees.
Ontario maple syrup production is a drop in the overall bucket. There are about 9,000 producers in Quebec, while the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers’ Association has only about 600 members, Bonenberg said.
The season can be less than two weeks long or up to eight weeks long, depending on the whims of nature. The sap flowed briefly in Rochon’s neighbourhood during a mild spell in February. The best weather for sap is when temperatures are below -5C at night and 5C or higher during the day.
Some of the giant maples toppled by the 2022 derecho at Fulton’s were already over a century old when Deugo’s ancestors arrived from Scotland in 1840. Some of the wood showed signs of tapping that went back that far. The logs have been piled and are waiting to be milled and turned into cutting boards, tables and other wood products.
Deugo is sanguine about the chances for a respectable maple syrup yield this year. On average, he sells about 6,000 litres of the sweet stuff, all from the farm or online. Orders increased during the pandemic.
“Challenges like this are normal in farming,” he said of the derecho.
“We’ve had the depression, wars, fires, the ice storm. As challenging as it is, it’s not something we haven’t faced as a family before. We’ve taken a bit of a hit, but we’re in a good place.”
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