The Sticky Reality

The Maple Syrup Industry in Canada

This past August in the small community of St.-Louis-de-Blandford, Quebec, thieves successfully siphoned and stole 16,000 barrels of maple syrup. Worth nearly $30 million dollars, the stolen syrup made up a quarter of the provincial reserve and close to a tenth of the 2012 Quebec harvest.

The St.-Louis-de-Blandford facility served only as a temporary holding facility for the syrup and was secured by fences and under lock and key. This particular warehouse was one of the smaller reserve holding facilities, holding only 3.4 million of the 13 million litres on reserve. Fortunately, the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers have the entire stock insured. Not only are most people shocked at the sheer magnitude of this heist, but many are surprised as the incident has brought awareness to the political economic complexities of managing the maple syrup industry in Canada.

Canadian maple syrup has a significant presence on the international market as demand continues to rise and production remains unpredictable, given the sensitive nature of harvesting the maple sap.

Canada exports 9.4 million litres of maple syrup annually, at an approximate value of $145 million CAD. Interest in Canadian maple syrup continues to grow on an international scale, demonstrated by the 252 percent increase in shipments of maple syrup to Japan between 2000 and 2005. Maple syrup producers have to meet local and national demand as well as supporting industries, and producers are feeling the shift as maple syrup becomes a large international export market.

Quebec taps 75 percent of the world’s maple syrup supply and the maple syrup industry provides a livelihood for many. The Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers is a provincial association of 7500 producers who cooperatively operate according to a bulk sales quota for individual producers, according to supply-driven management of the resource. As the demand for maple syrup continues to rise, there is a need to ensure these demands are met and that market prices remain relatively stable. This is the reason for the strategic maple syrup reserve in Canada, to ensure that the world supply is maintained and that prices for this sweet, valuable resource remain steady amidst the seasonal sensitivity of maple syrup production.

In 2008, supplies fell short and prices jumped from $2.40/lb to $4.00/lb. This spike in prices proved to be a short-term gain for the producers but buyers were eventually priced out of the market. The market was not insulated by adequate reserves as a result of the quotas being established by the Federation, paired with weak seasonal harvests. These quotas were adjusted and a larger reserve was established to ensure weak seasons did not impact the maple syrup market again. This allowed for better regulation of stock (until it was stolen) and more consistent profitability and sustainable market prices even in times of low production.

These moments of market instability can create potential problems for big syrup buyers – such as bottlers and large food companies who produce maple-flavoured goods – and cannot bear major market variations and price fluctuations when making bulk purchases of the syrup. For instance, major oatmeal manufacturers depend on a certain supply of maple syrup to meet market demand for their maple-flavoured goods. If maple syrup prices fluctuate and supply cannot be met, it creates a ripple effect that reaches across the food product market.

The annual maple syrup harvest is dependent upon regional and seasonally specific factors, all affecting maple trees’ capacity to produce in the spring. These trees require a specific balance of cold nights and mild to warm days for the sap to run and be harvested. Depending on the temperatures and the seasons, the sap yield will vary greatly in colour and flavour as well as vitamin, mineral, and antioxidant composition. Agriculture Canada has developed a flavour wheel to account for the 91 different flavours that can be found in maple syrup, divided into 13 families which play off the palate similar to the flavour profiles of grapes in wine. Typically, trees between the ages of 30 to 40 years are tapped and yield sap until they reach 100 years of age. In Canada, there are three grades: Can. No. 1 (extra light, light, medium); Can. No. 2 (amber); and Can. No. 3 (dark or ungraded). The annual yield for each grade per producer is as follows: Can. No. 1 (25-30 percent), Can. No. 2 (10 percent), and Can. No. 3 (2 percent).

Given the increased demand and sensitivity associated with maple syrup production, syrup heists are common and have led to a growing ‘black market.’ The magnitude of the incident at St.-Louis-de-Blandford, Quebec meant that investigators worked with a relatively narrow pool of potential suspects. The investigation crossed provincial lines, looking for those who had the capacity to store and unload such a massive quantity of maple syrup. One month after the heist, the investigation led the RCMP and Quebec Provincial Police to seize what is suspected to be 600-800 barrels of Amber Gold syrup, the very same grade of syrup that went at St.-Lou-de-Blandford.

Police issued a search warrant and raided an export and processing facility in Kedgwick, New Brunswick. The facility was under ownership by S.K. Exports, a company with a tumultuous relationship with the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers. In the past, the Federation had brought the company to court under suspicion of purchasing maple syrup from unauthorized sources. Although charges have yet to be laid, the police investigation continues as the amount seized was only a fraction of what had gone missing. Management from S.K. Exports has stated that the syrup came from an honest man who is a regular supplier from Quebec. Sarto Landry, the lawyer who represents the Quebec company from which S.K. Exports received their maple syrup, defended his client by explaining that the maple syrup was purchased at regular market prices in an authorized manner. Each party insists that they have acted in good faith, while millions of dollars worth of maple syrup remains missing.

Market, seasonal and environmental dynamics will continue to increase the value of maple syrup as demand steadily grows. Similar to other rare or unique natural resources, the maple syrup industry is becoming corrupted with companies looking at cheap or illegal means of securing the resource. Maple syrup has served as a national and cultural symbol and a staple for Canada’s provincial and national economies; it is now being desired around the world. The sticky reality of this national treat can come as a surprise to those who are unaware of the time and care that goes into its production, the existence of a national strategic surplus reserve, or the emergence of a black market.

Canadian and international maple syrup lovers continue to follow this story with hopes that authorities will one day come upon the massive stockpile of stolen syrup. They hope that justice will be served as police apprehend the thieves, stuck in the sticky situation they created. In the meantime, all can rest assured, knowing that there is more than enough of the sweet stuff, strategically reserved, to go around.

July 16, 2018, 6:54 AM EDT

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