PAKENHAM — Maple syrup producers are hoping for a return of more in-person customers after two years of lost income.
“In 2020, we shut down in March and last year we had no activities outside,” Shirley Fulton-Deugo, owner of Fulton’s Sugar Bush & Maple Shop, a 400-acre operation with 5,800 taps. “We took a big hit the first year because it all happened so fast. Now we’ve had time to get back on our feet.”
There will still be no guided tours to minimize gatherings and the 50-year-old pancake house is permanently closed after two years of uncertainty over indoor dining. The former restaurant is now their expanded store. The farm had between 30-35 staff before the pandemic, now they’ve only got 10. But their horse-drawn sleigh rides are back for the first time in two years.
Fulton-Deugo said they ordered bottles and containers much earlier than normal, fearing supply chain issues slowing delivery.
The pandemic did lead to some positive changes, including corporate orders going “through the roof” and more opportunities for wholesaling.
“We have no idea if people are going to be comfortable enough to come, how busy we’ll be, how many staff we’re going to need, but we’re going to do our very best,” Fulton-Deugo said.
The high cost of food is a struggle shared by most maple syrup producers this year. Earl Stanley, owner of Stanley’s Olde Maple Lane Farm in Edwards, Ont., says he’s had to adjust his prices and is “nervous about the backlash.”
The cost of a jug of oil for their deep frier jumped from $16 last year to $46 this year and the company that supplied their sausages for 30 years stopped producing them. “We were the biggest buyer of breakfast sausages and we bought three tonne a year. Everything we bought in the past is becoming harder to find,” Stanley said.
Stanley says he’s hoping to get his sales up to what they used to be. Back in 2020, he bought a tonne of white beans and says he’s still working on the same tonne, which he should have gone through that same year.
“After losing money for two years, I can’t continue to do it for another year. We are praying, we are hoping, we are counting on a great season,” Stanley said. He works an 80-hour work week to keep things running and says he hasn’t taken a single day off since the pandemic began.
Stanley is also running his business with significantly less employees than pre-pandemic, but is “trying to learn how to do more with less,” he says.
Instead of having employees shovel the trails, he now does it with a front-end loader plow. He did not get enough staff applications to open his pancake house, but has opted for two food trucks outside.
“There was an old gentleman I knew who once told me, ‘Normal is a setting on the dryer. There’s no other normal.’ We have to create the new normal. We’re coming up with new ideas and new ways for people to enjoy the farm,” said Stanley.