Nature snaps trees; gov’t bureaucracy shatters patience

CLAYTON, Ont. – In Don Dodds’ 60 years, there never had been a week like it.

For five days last January, the freezing rain fell and after the second storm, he began to hear the cracking sounds from his sugar bush as branches and treetops snapped and crashed to earth.

It was the ice storm of the century, inflicting billions of dollars in damage on eastern Ontario, a swath through Quebec and into New Brunswick.

Back on Dodds’ sugar farm west of Ottawa, it was clear the 35-acre bush that is the base of his livelihood was taking a beating.

“You could hear it at night, the noise,” he said. But he didn’t stop to worry at the time.

The power was out everywhere and he spent his days driving the side roads of Lanark County, hooking his generator up to give neighbors a few hours of power before moving on to the next darkened house.

“There wasn’t really time to think about yourself,” he recalls.

Then, as the crisis faded, it was time for a reality check.

His bush lot was littered with debris. As many as 30 percent of his 2,535 sugar maple trees were damaged or destroyed.

“These trees were carrying two tons of ice,” he marvelled.

The woods were full of “widow makers,” broken tops or branches snagged high up but liable to fall on an unsuspecting head at any moment.

And everywhere in the 32 kilometres of blue tubing that snakes through his bush, from maple tree to maple tree, there were breaks where trees or limbs had fallen.

“It was a mess.”

A small government grant helped start the cleanup and government officials urged maple sugar farmers to tap the trees this year as usual.

Then came the second crisis, which has left maple sugar producers in this part of eastern Ontario reeling.

It was clear, from the damaged trees, that the sugar harvest would be reduced.

But in Lanark County, which calls itself “The Maple Syrup Capital of Ontario,” the reality was much worse than the fears.

Normally, Dodds would end up with 600 gallons of maple syrup which would sell in stores for about $42 a gallon. He also sells maple syrup equipment and he packs maple products, which are sold across Canada.

This year, he tapped 30 percent fewer trees in respect for their damage and trauma. His harvest was 125 gallons, 20 percent of normal.

He will have to buy syrup from Quebec to fulfil his contract commitments and keep his customers.

“It is going to be a very expensive year for me,” said Dodds.

Spring collection

Ontario and Quebec’s maple sugar season comes in March and April when night temperatures fall below freezing and day temperatures rise above zero. The cold at night drives the tree sap down to the roots where the sugar is stored and the daytime warmth sends the sap back up the tree toward the branches and the leaf buds, past the holes the farmers bore to tap into the sugary liquid.

The blue tubing carries the sap into vats where it is boiled into commercial products – maple syrup, maple butter, maple sugar and derivatives.

As always in March, Dodds and his neighbors bored their holes in trees and inserted their spigots to collect the sap.

Normally, 40 gallons of sap converts into one gallon of syrup.

Dodds’ first clue that it would be worse than expected was that sap flow was well below normal. He figures the trees were holding back their sap to preserve sugar for the survival struggle that lies ahead.

His second clue was that the first sap tapped was rich in sugar, higher than the accustomed three percent. Quickly, it became weaker, down to 1.75 percent. It took twice as much sap to boil the same quantity of syrup.

“The trees were compensating for their damage and saving their strength for survival,” he said.

The result is that the $35 million Ontario industry is in trouble this year.

And that brought Dodds to the second calamity of the 1998 farming season – politicians and bureaucrats.

In highly publicized trips to the disaster area in January, Ontario and federal politicians went before the television cameras to promise aid.

As head of the eastern Ontario sugar producers’ lobby for compensation, Dodds said he has been frustrated. By April, there had been little help in Ontario.

Quebec received quick compensation for 100 percent of losses. Ontario producers, through federal-provincial agreement, have been offered 90 percent and that has been slow in coming.

“We’re second class citizens in Ontario by definition, entitled to 10 percent less,” he fumed.

“And our package is taking forever to arrange and they have their money. I think I’d rather deal with whatever Mother Nature throws at me than bureaucracy and politics.”

Meanwhile, he figured losses due to reduced sales, rebuilding investments and purchases to fill contracts could cost him $60,000 this year.

And the damage will not end in 1998.

Estimates are that maple syrup production will not rebound for five years or more as the trees re-establish themselves or destroyed trees are replaced by new ones.

And the full effect will be much more drawn out.

“The impact on the trees will be 40 years,” said Dodds, surveying the damage. “It will be that long before this bush is back to where it was before the storm.”

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