Editor's note: This article was first published Jan. 23. We're bringing it back today in observation of Maple Syrup Saturday, celebrated the third Saturday in March.
WASHINGTON (CIRCA) — In Canada, maple syrup is a sticky business, with much of the production controlled by a private organization that's got some tough rules. But all those control issues happening north of the border actually benefit the American producers who harvest the stuff you put on your pancakes.
Circa visited the world's largest maple syrup reserve to get some perspective on the fight for dominance when it comes to this golden global treasure. The facility, located about two hours outside Montreal, Quebec, holds 48 million pounds of syrup. There are 82,000 barrels lined up and stacked to the ceiling, each one filled to the brim with liquid gold. The price tag for a barrel? A tour guide told us it's approximately $1,800 each.
Quebec is responsible for more than 70 percent of the world’s maple syrup, producing tens of millions of dollars' worth annually, according to officials within the industry. It’s produced by people across the province who ship barrel after barrel to this massive reserve. But not every producer considers the existing method of production and distribution a sweet deal. Nicole Varin is one of them.
Varin is one of more than 7,000 maple producers in Quebec. Circa spoke to her in partnership with our sister program, "Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson," touring the sugar shack she runs with her husband. It's a family business that's been around for 100 years. But it's at risk because Varin is facing years of fines as a result of the way she runs the business. Potentially a million dollars' worth.
"I fight for my grandson and my granddaughter. I fight for my daughter. This is my baby," Varin said.
As we approach sugaring season, we took a look at the business of big syrup, including a civil war in Canada .. and how American producers may be the real winners. Watch @JoceSterman’s report: https://t.co/XvRXXSyZyh #maplesyrup #liquidgold #stickysituation pic.twitter.com/h6SjgeahT4— Full Measure News (@FullMeasureNews) January 6, 2019
Here's why Varin is rolled up in a battle that could potentially land her in jail over maple syrup. Quebec is unique. Since the late '80s, its maple syrup industry has been controlled by a special federation called the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers. Think OPEC, but instead of big oil, it’s big syrup controlling breakfast gold. Simon Trépanier runs the organization. He said, "The federation is stabilizing the entire maple syrup market. We are like a locomotive of the industry."
As Trépanier explained it, the federation helps level out the mood swings of Mother Nature. The massive reserve of maple syrup it compiles means there’s always enough syrup to sell, even when the weather doesn’t cooperate and the harvest is impacted. But the safety net of stable price and supply that's supplied by the federation, as well as the global marketing producers also get, comes at a cost. One producers like Varin don't support.
Under the federation's rules, there’s a production quota and producers have to sell through the federation. They can’t go out on their own and do bulk deals with stores or chains. Once Varin went outside those rules, she landed on the federation's radar.
"I find my customers. I made everything alone," she said. "It wasn’t there anyway when I start. So, now I have to pay them? They didn’t make anything for me. All that I have, it’s what we worked for it."
Trépanier told us the vast majority of producers supported the creation of the federation and still support it. To his knowledge, only about 50 producers have rebelled against the system.
"Those people are always the victim."
Trépanier believes they’re taking advantage of the thousands who follow the rules. "They are basically libertarians on the economy so that they want to do their job and they want to profit without respecting any rules," he explained.
But those the federation rules don’t apply across the border. And that gives American maple producers like Roger Brown a potential edge. His sugar shack and business, Slopeside Syrup, is in Vermont, less than two hours from the drip-drip drama happening in Quebec.
We asked Brown whether American producers get the best of both worlds, benefiting from the stability and marketing of the federation without the rules and fees. He said, "In a word, we do. You have the bulk of the world’s population is supply limited, is controlled by the federation. We are outside of that, so we can add taps. We can grow as much as we possibly can without consequence almost. On the supply side, that's a great place to be."
It’s a slow crawl to catch up with the global leader in maple. But there's progress stateside in the quest to catch up to Quebec. It's happening with help from producers like Brown. He says maple producers in the U.S. are a tight-knit group. He says they communicate a lot, sharing best practices to grow. But he doesn't predict the establishment of anything like a federation on this side of the border.
"If someone came into my sugar house and told me how much syrup I could make, that would be hard I think, emotionally in some ways," Brown said. "But economically, I understand the rationale for it and I do think it’s been a productive thing."
en a productive thing."