Inside the fight to save New Brunswick’s maple syrup

It’s syrup makers versus loggers in the battle over Canada’s maple forests
Peter Kuitenbrouwer
(Photo Illustration by Stephen Gregory)
Montreal, QC, Canada – November 9, 2014: A can of pure maple syrup from Decacer.

Each winter, Nicolas Martin and his father, Marco, snowshoe to a publicly owned forest near the Restigouche River, about 300 km north of Fredericton, where the snowdrifts are as tall as they are. They stop at each mature sugar maple to drill holes—some 30,000 in all—into which they tap nozzles called spiles. These connect to tubes that flow sap to the boiling room when spring arrives, and the team lights their evaporator to boil the sap for maple syrup.

In January, a group of maple syrup producers, including the Martins, marched through Saint-Quentin, the heart of New Brunswick syrup country, calling on their government to lease them more of the sugar bush. One syrup producer, Denis Côté, told a newspaper, “They’re clear-cutting everything.” In Quebec last summer, meanwhile, syrup makers created a video critical of loggers, and demanded that governments protect Crown land for that sweet nectar of spring.

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Sawmills and pulp mills have long been pillars of New Brunswick’s economy, but the province’s northeast, where the Martins live, is increasingly known these days for maple syrup. As demand for syrup soars, syrup producers in New Brunswick and Quebec are demanding that governments reduce logging and protect more maple trees. “We want access to more public land so we can expand our industry,” Marco says.

The world has a sweet tooth for maple syrup: some 80 per cent of the world’s syrup comes from Canada, mainly Quebec, and exports grew 21 per cent last year. Last fall, to meet global demand, Quebec released about half of its Global Strategic Maple Syrup Reserve, or 22.7 million kg. Syrup makers want to produce more but they say loggers threaten their livelihood. You need maple trees to make maple syrup but the wood of maple trees has many other uses: floors, furniture, pool cues, pellets for heating, shipping pallets, paper, mouldings in homes and even skateboards, guitars and pianos. Sawmills across Eastern Canada won’t readily give up their supply of mature maples. This leaves governments in a sticky situation: do we cut maple trees down for wood or let them grow for syrup?

Both groups are clamouring for more access to maple forests. Quebec has leased 40,000 hectares of public forests for maple syrup, accounting for about one-fifth of the province’s production. Meanwhile, about 80 sawmills in Quebec consume about 1.2 million cubic metres of maple wood each year, and they want more. The price of maple planks rose 39 per cent between 2020 and 2021, as a booming U.S. housing market increased U.S. demand for Quebec maple.

So far, Quebec has been able to meet demand for maple syrup with existing private forests and Crown forest leases. But the province’s syrup makers say that it will need 168 million taps by 2080, about quadruple its current number. They want permission to lease about 200,000 hectares of public land over the next 60-odd years. However, Jean-François Samray, chief executive of Quebec’s forest industry lobby, says mills need those maple trees. “We are working to find solutions. We don’t see why people have to choose between eating syrup on their pancakes or eating pancakes while sitting at a table made of maple. We think there is room for both.” Michel Ferron runs the Scierie Carrière, a sawmill in Lachute, north of Montreal, and one of about 80 mills in Quebec that buys maple logs. The mill, with 40 workers, wants to protect its wood supply; the mill ships maple to Japan and Indonesia to make components for Kawai pianos. “We know that everyone loves maple syrup, but setting aside more public land for maple syrup production is going to lower our volumes,” Ferron says.

In Quebec, producers have accused the province of cutting sugar bushes for fast cash; a healthy maple tree will produce $30 of syrup every year for a century. Serge Beaulieu, head of the producers’ group, lives south of Montreal. “Behind my sugar shack, the forest has been tapped for 200 years,” he says. “We need to maintain space for maple syrup.” But Beaulieu needs sawmills, too; he thins his sugar bush and sends the wood to mills. “We don’t want the mills to go away,” he says. “We need to find an equilibrium.”

Christian Messier, a forest researcher at the Université du Québec en Outaouais who makes maple syrup for family and friends at his own sugar bush in Saint-Émile-de-Suffolk, Que., says that leasing more public forests to syrup producers could create another problem on top of a lumber shortage. Syrup makers cut other tree species to favour maples: “We end up with a monoculture of maple trees that will be bad for resilience and biodiversity,” he says. Logging operations, on the other hand, let in sunlight, which helps other species such as oak, walnut and yellow birch to thrive.

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The Quebec government says it has heard the syrup makers’ concerns and has set up a roundtable with syrup producers, mills and government to seek compromise. The province also notes in an email that it is bullish on maple as a source of wood; U.S. home builders want more maple from Quebec.

New Brunswick, where the Martins tap their trees, is a relative newcomer to the syrup industry. Quebec and U.S. syrup producers suffered a poor syrup season in 2021, compared to the bounty crop harvested in New Brunswick. Jean-François Laplante, who bought three sugar bush operations on Crown land in 2008 and has since doubled his production, sold all his 2021 syrup to buyers in Quebec (who resell most of it to the United States). “Nobody in New Brunswick has any syrup left on their shelves that they can’t sell,” says Laplante, who heads the New Brunswick Maple Syrup Association. New Brunswick syrup producers also want more trees, and they’ve asked their government to roughly double the forest available for maple syrup, or about two per cent of the province’s public forests. New Brunswick’s natural resources department says it is evaluating their request against other land use possibilities.

Maple sap runs best after a cold winter. As the climate changes, it might make sense to protect the sugar bush in northern New Brunswick, where syrup season arrives a month later than in southern Quebec—particularly to help young syrup makers do their job. “I like to be in nature,” says Nicolas Martin. “It’s calm and silent. People call it meditation.”

This article appears in print in the April 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Sugar rush.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.