Family partnership celebrates 50 years in maple business

ILDERTON, Ont. — There are many examples of rural communities that have failed in Canada but not where the Robson brothers farm.

The area north of London in Ontario is especially sweet among the fertile lands in southwestern Ontario. The brothers have learned the value of co-operation, as well.

That began 50 years ago with a decision to tap perhaps 100 hard maple trees and make syrup over the spring break outdoors in an iron kettle.

Today, three of the four brothers, Jay, Jamie and Joel, are still at it, together with several of their children. It’s a model of co-operation. A partnership.

“There needs to be give and take to make it work. Everyone has their specialty. We’re all a bit better at one thing more than the others,” Jamie Robson said.

His particular talent lies in public relations. As other family members point out, usually with a smile, he loves to talk.

The partnership, however, is a serious aspect of the business. Details are spelled out in a formal written agreement for Robson Brothers Farms.

Robson said one of the central purposes was to provide an exit strategy in the event any of the partners wanted out.

“I think why a lot of others have failed is because there wasn’t a formal agreement,” he said.

Co-operation was a necessity when the Robson family settled here in 1820 and later donated land from their original holdings for St. George’s Anglican Church.

“Many of the congregation are still descended from the original pioneer settlers,” Robson said.

Today, in an era when the fragility of rural Canada may be underappreciated, the Robson brothers have found a structure that not only works for their business but also supports the families around them.

Steve Kennedy was brought in as a fourth partner. Together, the four work about 7,000 acres, growing corn, wheat, soybeans and edible beans.

It’s a big operation by Ontario standards but supports several families. Children of the four partners work as employees and have begun to invest in the farming industry for themselves.

Maple syrup production is the most labour intensive for the business but is certainly not the biggest money maker.

Still, it has delivered a regular spring income, and was especially important during the period of high interest rates in the early 1980s when the brothers were starting out.

Today, the family’s Rolling Ridge Maple Products taps 150 acres of woodlot split between four different locations. There are about 14,000 taps, which this year will produce about 14,000 litres of syrup, an average crop.

“February was unusually warm this year so we have more of the dark grade,” Robson said.

Four litres of maple syrup sell for $55 at the Robsons’ retail location.

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