It’s a bright, chilly Sunday morning on Dalhousie Mountain in Pictou County. Peter MacLean raises his voice to be heard over the roar of his enclosed all-terrain vehicle as it zips through the woods of his camp.
Although it’s been more than two months since post-tropical storm Fiona hit Nova Scotia, MacLean is still dealing with the storm’s significant impact on his maple syrup operation.
“That’s where the bulk of it was over here,” he shouts, gesturing to a spot off the path as the vehicle bounces over uneven terrain.
“We only lost about 400 trees over here. It would’ve been 1,500 or 1,600 on the other side.”
Fiona made landfall in Nova Scotia on Sept. 24, but its impact is still being felt by the province’s maple producers, who province-wide have lost an estimated 30% of their tapped trees. And in the hardest hit areas in Antigonish, Pictou, Colchester and Cumberland counties, some operators have lost up to an estimated 90% of their tapped trees.
A lot of unseen damage
Last year, Dalhousie Maple Products produced 650 gallons of maple syrup. MacLean bought a new evaporator and was preparing to expand (double) his operation this season from 4,000 taps to 8,000.
But then Fiona hit, destroying at least 4,500 trees. About 2,000 of those were tapped.
Despite the significant setback, MacLean is pragmatic. He expects his operation will be back to 4,000 tapped trees–or very close to it–by the spring.
“It’s Mother Nature. Nothing you can do for her but grin and bear it,” he said.
MacLean’s operation has weathered many storms, with some taking up to 30 trees in their wake. But the thousands of trees felled by Fiona made it by far the worst storm MacLean has experienced since launching his maple syrup operation in 1992.
“We really have no idea how much it affected the trees. A tree might look good but it might be split right up the middle for all we know,” MacLean said, glancing around the forest.
“I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to say that there’s 5,500 trees (gone)…A lot of them have the tops broken off. See here? There’s a lot more damage than just (the trees) tipped (over).”
‘Took a hunk out of us’
The person hired to help clean out the worst of the fallen trees at the camp early on worked onsite for 10 days. A counter on his equipment is how the MacLeans know at least 4,500 trees were destroyed by the storm.
Those lost trees amounted to about 400 cords of hardwood and 200 cords of softwood. Some of that wood is still piled high, lining sections along the sides of the long backwoods road out to the remote camp.
“The whole thing is it takes about 50 years to grow a maple tree, so once that tree is gone, it’s gone. It’s not like losing a crop of corn where you plant it next year and it’s all back again,” MacLean said.
“It took a hunk out of us, that’s for sure.”
‘Flat like carpet’
From the day after the storm, MacLean and his son Kevin MacLean have spent six to seven days a week at their camp, working tirelessly to tear down and replace the lines (tubing collection system) that carry the sap.
Their goal is to have everything up and running before the heavy and sustained snow falls.
“All the lines were just wrecked, devastated. We had to tear all the main line out, all the blue lines, put everything in new,” MacLean explained, walking towards some of the bright blue lines weaving around the trees.
“This is right where our old line went, the main line. See the black line? All these blue lines running takes the sap to the tanks,” MacLean said. “A lot of people think we’re up here tapping now to get sap, but no. We’re just fixing lines.”
Staring at one of the wide open spaces in the forest, MacLean explained that before the storm it was filled with trees. He now finds himself thinking about how different the forest canopy will look come spring.
“There’s places that will never, ever, ever be cleaned up. You get a ways back in the woods, there’s places that are just flat like carpet,” MacLean said.
“My worst concern right now is that there’s that many trees missing that if the wind comes again, there’s nothing to stop it.”
‘Fiona was not kind to our forests’
Kevin McCormick has been involved with the industry for decades as a producer and equipment supplier. In addition to making maple syrup since 1987, he’s been heavily involved with the Maple Producers Association of Nova Scotia and is a liaison for the organization.
The association’s website notes there are more than 100 maple producers in the province, and most are small scale operations with fewer than 2,000 taps.
“There are maple producers who will not recover from this and their future in maple production is in question,” McCormick said. “Fiona was not kind to our forests. The destruction will take generations to recover.”
While he doesn’t have concrete numbers, McCormick said the Nova Scotia maple production industry is tight knit and many producers are his customers. He estimates that operations in the areas worst hit by Fiona lost anywhere from 50% to 90% of their tapped trees. Those that weren’t hit as badly still sustained estimated losses of between 15% and 20%.
Based on what his customers have shared, McCormick believes the province lost about 30% of its overall taps.
A big hit to the industry
“We have operators in Nova Scotia who have lost parts of their woodlots, 80-90%, and likely that means 100% because what’s left is not going to be viable,” McCormick said.
“Most of the production in Nova Scotia has been from Cumberland County through to Antigonish, the larger operations, and most of the taps are between Cumberland and Antigonish, so I don’t think I’m out on a limb very far to say that overall the province has lost 30% of its taps. That’s a big hit. That’s huge.”
McCormick said a survey was sent to maple producers to get a sense of damages sustained at operations throughout the province. One of his customers initially shared that he’d lost 15% of his trees. Once he had more time to survey the damage, he realized it was actually closer to 30%.
“It’s just heartbreaking,” McCormick said. “But most farmers are pretty resilient people. Maple is no different. We’ll have to deal with it.”
Between 10% to 20% of the 35,000 taps at his own operation, McCormick’s Maple in Rodney just outside Springhill, were also “totally wiped out” by Fiona’s winds. McCormick said he’s devastated that many of the felled trees had been seedlings in the late 1890s.
Although Fiona resulted in the worst damage his woodlot has ever sustained, McCormick considers himself “very fortunate” knowing that others are dealing with much worse.
“Our hardest hit producers are feeling devastated and overwhelmed,” he said.
“We’re a close knit group, so there’s not very many nights early on that I didn’t try and go to sleep at night worrying about my customers, worrying about the industry. There’s a lot of work to be done.”
‘A lot of unknowns’
McCormick is also concerned about the possible long term damage Fiona’s winds wrought on his remaining trees.
“There’s a lot of unknowns. It’s quite concerning, but again we’ve been dealt that hand so we’ve got no choice but to play it,” he said.
His biggest worry going forward is the increasing number of damaging weather events.
“We can deal with a lot of stuff, but we don’t have any control over weather events,” McCormick said.
“There seems to be a lot of extremes. Just two or three years ago we (had) a bad drought here, so trees were stressed really bad. It just seems to be one thing after another.”
McCormick said while it isn’t a major commodity, the industry still contributes to the provincial economy.
In an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada report published in August of 2021, the 2020 gross value of maple products (maple syrup, maple sugar, maple butter and maple taffy) in Nova Scotia was pegged at $2.85 million. That was a decrease from $3.85 million in 2019.
Statistics Canada data published last December found the gross value of maple products in Nova Scotia was $2 million in 2021. That report also noted that the amount of maple syrup harvested overall by Canadian producers was down 21.0% from 2020.
“The decline follows two consecutive record years of production,” the report said. “The lower production was the result of a short maple season brought on by warm spring temperatures felt across all four maple-producing provinces.”
Although data isn’t out yet for 2022, McCormick said this was a good season for most producers in the province. He’s confident the numbers will be back up and likely in the range of $3.5 to $4 million when figures are released for this year.
McCormick said there are big spinoffs from the province’s maple industry, notably its impact on tourism.
“One little community…they’ve had to build some parking lots along the road because it’s such a huge draw for people from New Brunswick even,” he said. “I know one gentleman…who had 3,000 visitors on a weekend. That’s huge.”
He’s hoping the province will include them in any agriculture disaster relief funding brought forward. He’s also encouraging Nova Scotians to support the local maple industry by buying Nova Scotia maple products or visiting operations that welcome visitors.
McCormick said maple producers are managing a living forest with the goal of ensuring that forest is healthy. In the aftermath of Fiona, he finds himself thinking a lot about current forestry practices.
“I think this hurricane has really opened that can of worms up again too,” McCormick said.
“We can’t really control the weather, but I think we can control what we do with how we manage our forests. I think that’s important.”
At Maple Mist Farm in Kemptown, Danny MacLeod also considers himself fortunate despite losing 650 of his 9,000 taps.
A small operation with two full-time workers (including himself) and two part-timers, their clean-up took more than eight weeks.
“A lot of the trees are tangled between each other so it’s not like it’s just a tree laying on the ground you have to go cut up. Half of them are still suspended partway up in the air,” MacLeod said of the storm’s aftermath.
“It is quite dangerous and it takes a long time to just get one or two trees down for that reason. You can’t just go in and start cutting. You have to do things strategically and safely.”
MacLeod said most of the trees at his operation that tipped over by the roots were century trees.
“You could count the rings and they’re 85 rings plus, and that’s not even counting the centre four inches of the tree…that could be another 25, 30 years.”
Although he jokingly refers to McCormick as the man in the know, MacLeod is the current president of the Maple Producers Association of Nova Scotia.
He said a key concern for many producers is that it takes a lifetime to get the trees back. In addition, the work required to clean up, repair, and/or put in new lines is extensive and costly.
“If you lose 100 cows you’re down those 100 cows until you can buy more, which is usually within a year. With trees, it’s 30 to 40 years for them to grow back,” MacLeod said.
“And the expense to run new lines into a new section of trees that are still standing is immense. So it’s not just replacing the trees. It’s all the infrastructure that goes with it.”
‘Going to see quite a dieback in the next five years’
MacLeod said impacted maple producers are hopeful they’ll get some government assistance to help recoup some of the costs associated with the clean-up.
“It’s a huge expense. For example, instead of doing the jobs I had planned for this fall, we spent eight weeks with extra people just cutting wood that we didn’t plan on doing,” he said.
“Now I have to get back to the month and a half of work I had planned for the fall.”
MacLeod is also pragmatic about the future, noting that when it comes to weather events all they can do is “grin and bear it and hope for the best.”
“We can’t grow shorter trees. They don’t work that way,” he laughed. “But we were joking awhile back saying it would be nice if we could top them off at about 15 feet.”
MacLeod also echoes the concerns expressed by McCormick and MacLean. He believes the full extent of the damage caused by Fiona to the trees left standing remains to be seen.
“With that amount of wind force, the roots can shear off even if the trees don’t fall down, and I think we’re going to see in the province in general, in forestry, quite a dieback in the next five years,” MacLeod said.
“That’s going to be trees that didn’t blow over but were damaged enough that it’s going to take the life out of them. So we still expect to lose trees going forward.”