Petroleum stockpiles aren’t the only strategic reserves being tapped this season amid concerns of supply shortages and sky-high prices.
The Canadian federation that controls close to three-quarters of the world’s maple syrup production recently announced it will release some 50 million pounds of maple syrup from its emergency stockpile – almost half of the reserve – to keep Quebec’s liquid gold flowing to breakfast tables worldwide.
The announcement from the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers (QMSP), first reported by Bloomberg News, comes after supply was strained by a drop in production and a pandemic-fueled surge in demand. Quebec produces 73% of the world’s maple syrup supply but was hit with a shorter and warmer spring sugaring season that caused output to fall by nearly a quarter. Meanwhile, global sales jumped more than 36% from 2020, according to QMSP data.
“This year’s production was lower overall, and it really was a combination of Mother Nature being uncooperative as far as a good season and the good news about maple syrup’s health benefits,” said Kevin McCormick, a seasoned maple syrup producer in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, which also saw a weather-related drop in production.
Representatives with QMSP did not immediately respond to interview requests Saturday, but spokesperson Helene Normandin told Bloomberg last week that the federation maintains its strategic reserve to offset lean production years or spikes in demand.
“The pandemic helped in our case because we’re seeing people cook more at home and use more local products,” Normandin told Bloomberg.
The federation – which is often dubbed in news reports as “the OPEC of maple syrup” referring to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, or a “cartel” – has contended with threats to its lucrative stockpile before: A theft ring hit the QMSP warehouse in 2012 and made off with roughly 9,600 barrels of syrup valued at an estimated $18 million (two-thirds of the stolen supply was later recovered).
Maple syrup’s value stems in part from the precise conditions required for production.
Sugar maples, the most common maple tree species for syrup, grow almost exclusively in the American north and northeast and in the Canadian southeast. Trees must be mature – typically 30 to 40 years old – before they can be tapped, and harvest conditions between midwinter and mid-spring must swing between warm and freezing in a single day.
“You need to have cold nights and then warm days and that’s what makes the sap run because there’s pressure in the tree,” Matt Chagnon, a forestry professor, explains in a 2014 video on maple syrup harvesting.
Navindra P. Seeram, a professor of biomedical and pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Rhode Island, said sugar maples and their output are increasingly being tapped for alternative food products and nutrition and cosmetic uses such as anti-aging creams.
“It’s the new, hottest thing now,” he said of using maple-based cosmetics.
Growing consumer demand isn’t the only challenge to producers of maple syrup and other maple-derived products: Climate change and logging threaten to further stress the supply of healthy trees.
Similarly to Quebec, the northeastern Canadian province of Nova Scotia – where 600,000 taps are used to supply maple – suffered a loss in syrup production this year from the coupling of a severe drought with an unseasonably warm winter in 2020.
Maple trees, McCormick said, were stressed from the double-whammy of events that lend themselves to a shortfall of moisture in the ground and a lack of the freezing and thawing cycles the plants need. Then, this year’s warmer spring further affected the trees’ production and the quality of the maple they supplied.
“Unseasonably warm temperatures in the spring has effects on the production and quality of syrup, so we can’t make it into a commercial syrup,” he said. “Fourteen and 15 degrees Celsius [or 57.2 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit] is just not conductive to good maple production during the season because it advances the tree too quickly.”
With 35,000 taps, McCormick’s business usually produces up to 13,000 imperial gallons of syrup. He said he is hopeful about next year. After all, this summer brought above average rainfall to Nova Scotia, and “the trees have done really well.” Yet, climate change – and the possibility for far more frequent severe weather events – continues to worry maple syrup producers.
“A lot depends on the unknown,” he said. “As in most commodities, we are dealing with the ongoing concerns about climate change, so we’re all here in the same boat.”
Seeram said finding more uses for maple products could boost conservation efforts and help connect people to the land; he noted there’s a deeply-rooted cultural significance to maples in North America, where Indigenous people tapped trees for centuries before European settlers arrived.
“We want to really educate folks about how this is a nature product that’s unique to this part of the word – the plants are only found here,” he said.