MONCTON - As David Briggs trudges into his forest of sugar maples, he thinks out loud about the coming syrup season.
"We can only hope it's not like last year," he said. "Not that there's much we can do about it - other than hope."
His boots break fresh holes in the snow around hundreds of trees, signalling the beginning of a new season.
New Brunswick ranks third in the world in maple syrup production and is home to the country's largest organic and conventional syrup producers.
Some of the province's 112 maple syrup makers already have spent months tapping their trees and setting up lines of plastic tubing in preparation for just a few weeks of production that may begin any day now.
They are praying that this year the weather will co-operate.
Two straight seasons of foundering production has cost the industry millions, spiking prices and decimating any reserve of syrup around the world.
"I mean 2007 was bad, but 2008 was miserable," Yvon Poitras, general manager of the New Brunswick Maple Syrup Association, said.
"It was the worst year in 35 years of production. We didn't even produce 50 per cent of normal production."
Canada accounts for 85 per cent of the world's production of maple syrup, the majority of it coming from Quebec. Each year the industry prefers to have a reserve of at least 30 per cent of its product to meet higher demands, Poitras said.
But there is currently virtually no reserve.
"If we don't get a good season we're going to be in big, big trouble," he said. "There are no reserves left anywhere. There is a lack of product all over the world."
Sap drips from maple trees when temperatures fluctuate from -5"‚C at night to 5"‚C during the day, usually beginning in mid-March.
Last year, snow storms buried tubing and forced producers to spend thousands of dollars clearing obstructions.
When the season finally came, it lasted only four days before temperatures turned drastically warm, ruining the sap season.
"We thought we had it made last year. The old guys were saying it was going to be a great season, and then nothing," he said. "We depend so much on Mother Nature that it's unbelievable.
"Everyone's got their fingers crossed, their legs crossed and everything else crossed to see what Mother Nature is going to dump on us this year."
New Brunswick can produce more than four million pounds of maple syrup each year, originating from more than two million tree taps.
That ranks behind Quebec and Vermont.
Poitras said the industry as a whole lost more than $5 million last year.
Even though syrup producers have had a difficult time of late, the industry could easily grow bigger. Poitras said his association is working with the province to utilize more Crown land that is heavily covered with maples.
New Brunswick is home to the largest single producer with 168,000 taps near Saint-Quentin. It is also home to a producer in Bath with 110,000 taps for organic syrup.
"Those are two things we love to boast about," Poitras said. " But if the weather doesn't co-operate, they may be the biggest, but the biggest of nothing in not much."
Gus Hargrove, owner of Canadian Organic Maple Co. Ltd., of Bath agrees.
His business has tapped into a growing sugar market, as an organic trend steers followers away from the refined substance. Hargrove now has an international market that spans Germany and China.
"The demand actually opened up some of the market for us, but it would be nice to have more to supply it," he said. "They seek you out because of it (a decrease in supply), especially in the last two years.
"But we're optimistic because we have had a couple bad years, so hey, third time lucky."
Briggs, the fifth generation in his family of maple syrup producers from the Moncton area, said there's no way to know what this season will have in store.
Regardless, the industry has served his family well. He plans to expand Rocky Mountain Maples to include a year-round business in Riverview to sell his maple syrup, butter, cream, candy, barbeque sauce and classic taffy.
"There's absolutely nothing we can do other than get ready for it," Briggs said.
"But this is a growing industry. Producers from all over the province are growing their operations."
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