This maple season, South Nation Conservation is spreading itself thinner than in the past to deliver its relevant information and education program.

SNC staff backed by committee volunteers will be present at four Eastern Ontario sugar bushes April 7-8 which is Maple Weekend coordinated by the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers’ Association. Maple operations where SNC will be represented are Proulx at Cumberland, Rollin Sugar Shack, Navan, La Cabane des Gars, Fournier, and Barkleyvale Farms south of Chesterville.

There are other syrup producers in the region that haven’t signed up for the special weekend. Conspicuously absent from the SNC list is Sand Road Maple Farm near Moose Creek where, in terms of syrup production education, the authority had put all its spigots in one basket for close to 20 years.

All of that came to an end this season, placing the very popular SNC program in a transition year and leading to the spreading of resources across four locations. The authority announced suspension of its showcase program which routinely drew up to 1,000 students to avoid an actual or perceived conflict of interest involving its new General Manager Angela Coleman who also happens to be a lawyer.

Since 2000, the program was staged at Sand Road, hosting students from Ottawa and across the region to learn the indigenous origins of syrup making through to modern pipelines, while sampling snow toffee and meals in the log pancake house.

Along the way, Sand Road was purchased by Angela and husband Scott, the on-site operator. Also along the way, Angela moved up to GM at SNC, resulting in the tough decision to end the relationship with Sand Road and redevelop the program for 2019.

I say “tough” because Scott, the one on the ground, forged an excellent partnership with SNC that benefited all concerned. There was never any indication that Sand Road gained from the relationship or from Angela’s position in any way other than through the flow of students through the property, some of which would have arrived – and still do – without SNC’s involvement. Every year, other sugaring operations were asked if they’d like to participate and every year there was no uptake other than Sand Road.

For this year, SNC will participate at the four previously mentioned sites. Meanwhile, schools interested in bringing the Maple Education Program into their classrooms can borrow an information kit free of charge from SNC.

As for redevelopment, among 13,000 acres of forest SNC owns in Eastern Ontario, there are several maple bushes formerly tapped by families who donated them for preservation to the authority. Some 15 acres of authority land are now leased to sugar bush operators, with the potential across all SNC forests of 2,200 taps.

A recent donation was 18-acre Oschmann Forest in the hamlet of Ormond on the northern edge of Dundas County, fairly central in the 4,300 square-km SNC watershed. With 1.2 acre walking trail, sugar shack, some equipment on site, and several important habitat features, Oschmann is the leading contender as new home for the Maple Education Program.

Also in Oschmann’s favour is the fact North Dundas Township has acquired adjacent land where it’s prepared to develop a parking lot and small community park at its expense. Parking will have to be sufficient to accommodate school buses.

Simultaneously to evaluating its own holdings for program delivery, SNC is reaching out once again to maple businesses in the region about potential new partnerships. With estimated production of about 700 litres of syrup for demonstration purposes, the new SNC program won’t pose a competitive threat to commercial operators.

“This is our longest running and most sought-after program,” observes John Mesman, SNC Communications Director, leaving to doubt it won’t be abandoned. “It supplements Ontario’s curriculum and includes key teachable moments in areas of natural heritage, forest management and ecosystem habitat.”

At a recent Communications Committee meeting where necessary upgrades of the Oschmann property were supported, several positive comments were made about the maple program’s value and the need to keep it going. Mesman indicated grants and donations, in addition to the parking lot, should play a large role in improving the site.

“Bringing students outdoors to enjoy nature and maple production first-hand has been a highlight for us, a truly Canadian experience.”

It’s unfortunate that possible negative perception would lead to the demise of a hugely successful partnership at Sand Road but, hey, that’s the way it is in the bureaucratic and legal world. All parties understand that fact of life.