70 percent of the world’s maple syrup is produced in Québec, Canada. Yet, unfair production rules are crushing independent producers.
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In 1992, in her mid-30s, Angèle Grenier, started her own maple syrup business. A native of Québec, Canada, she ran a sugar shack – where maple syrup is made – in Sainte-Clotilde-de-Beauce, Québec, which is more than 50 miles south of Québec City. The cold province produces around 70 percent of the world’s maple syrup supply, thanks in part to the region’s abundance of native sugar maples. Grenier’s small business was primed for success.
Being an independent producer was very important to her, but over the years, that became harder and harder because of changing production rules set by an industry regulatory body called the Federation of Québec Maple Syrup Producers. “They said that the first drop of [sap] that comes from the tree is ours,” Grenier recalled when speaking over a Zoom call in early January, about the Federation. But the reality looked much different for producers.
The Federation was originally formed by maple syrup producers themselves, who wanted to protect their rights in the late 1950s and early 1960s – a period of labor organizing in general in Canada. In the early 2000s, the Federation introduced new rules that required maple producers to sell all their maple syrup almost exclusively to the Federation. Today, only a handful of producers have a say on its board, and the Federation has monopolized the market, crushing small business owners in the process.
When the new rules started to limit profits for maple syrup producers like Grenier, they did not want to surrender to the Federation’s control. But, due to the Federation’s power, the producers’ business independence was not only at stake. They risked facing jail time too.
“I started to look at the market outside of Québec, and with friends, we started to send our maple syrup to New Brunswick,” she said, also claiming that the Federation is often late when paying producers their wages for their product in the current system. Grenier and her husband would cross the border between Québec and New Brunswick in the darkness in order to deliver barrels of maple syrup without being caught. Grenier’s mission was not totally a secret, however, as she still paid taxes to the government.
Soon, Grenier and her colleagues found themselves in the center of various court cases in Québec over their decision to become maple syrup rebels. First, many people were named in filings. But, as Grenier’s peers – many of whom had their own small businesses – agreed to stop selling maple syrup across the border and settled with the Federation, she found herself to be the Federation’s main target. Grenier’s peers were not left with much of a choice considering the Federation’s power. She set up a GoFundMe to offset some legal costs, but they were mounting up.
The Federation is not only overstepping, but the Québec government is letting them. In the Québec Appeals Court in 2016, Grenier argued that Québec’s “legislature is strictly limited to local marketing on its territory,” not all of Canada. So, who are they to put rules on exportation to different provinces? The appeals court did not agree with Grenier’s viewpoint.
After the Canadian Supreme Court refused to hear her case in 2017, she signed an agreement with the Federation and had to sell her sugar shack in Québec to pay off her legal debts. Grenier says she was fined more than $300,000 CAD, though can’t disclose the total sum. If she hadn’t settled with the Federation, she could have faced jail time.
The Federation of Québec Maple Syrup Producers was reached out for comment via email about allegations that it does not pay producers on time and at the amount they are owed, but they did not respond.
The freedom to speak about her experience is too important for her. “I also want to say that today I have the right to speak, but if I was still within the Federation, I wouldn’t be able to speak,” she said. “I would be muzzled.”
Inside the Un-Sweet Problem
According to a November 1920 report published by the Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, the yearly estimated value of Québécois maple syrup rose from around $1.6 million CAD in 1911 to $6.3 million CAD in 1919, roughly $21.7 million CAD or $16.9 million USD; and $85.6 million CAD or $66.7 million USD with inflation today.
To some, Québec’s maple syrup rules are indicative of the independent nature of the province and wanting to keep its own lucrative business in its grips as a Québécois success, not a Canadian one, and not one of individual maple syrup producers. Grenier has called this monopoly a “mafia” when talking to the press in the past.
And while she settled her legal fight, some maple syrup producers are still fed up. Those under the Federation have also posted on social media about how they were only paid 65 percent of profits from their maple syrup in 2020, instead of the 70 percent they are normally paid. Because the Federation is a monopoly, there is not much producers can do about this shady behavior.
Producers can fight for a better contract, but with complaints about the Federation’s policies going on for decades, it’s unclear whether it would consider appeasing the producers in negotiations.
“People would go bankrupt, or they would hide from the Federation for years,” Antoine Aylwin, a lawyer in Québec who spoke to Al Jazeera about disgruntled producers, said. “It’s been very challenging for them to pursue the people not acting within the system.”
Each winter, Grenier waits near where her sugar shack was, thinking about her old job. Now a grandmother in her 60s, she spends time with her family, who cannot benefit from the business she started. Grenier very much misses being a maple syrup producer.
“My mom was there every day because she missed the forest and everything so much right now,” said Pierre-Luc Grenier, her son who sat with his mother to help with live translation during the interview.
Producers continue to advocate for regulations restricting their business options to change, and experts have noted that the quota system may have a negative impact on how much syrup is produced.
If producers make a surplus of maple syrup, public policy analyst Alexandre Moreau, in a March 2018 report, explained that these producers will likely not benefit from this labor. “It could therefore take years for producers to be paid for such surplus production,” he wrote.
Québec’s maple syrup monopoly also hurts and interferes with competition outside of this province, including in the U.S. No one can keep up with its reserves—especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Breaking Up Big Maple
For Québec maple syrup producers to have more independence, the Federation would need a complete overhaul. For this to happen, the Québec government needs to reevaluate its programs with the Federation, and pass legislation to change the current rules which give the Federation so much power. Federally, the strengthening antitrust laws in Canada would also need to extend to agriculture.
These policies breaking up “big agriculture” is a possible solution out of this mess, which may also lead to innovative change within the industry.
“The need for innovation is a mantra among policymakers these days,” retired McGill University professor William Watson wrote in 2016. “How innovative is an industry likely to be when individual producers are subject to strict limits on output and are closely policed, with the force of law, by their industry association?”
Even now, five years after losing her sugar shack, Grenier does not regret standing up for what she believes in and encourages others to do the same. “I would tell them that if you believe in your cause, and it will serve [anyone] that feels their rights and freedoms are being violated….yes, go ahead.”
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