Learning the sweet tricks of the maple syrup trade

Experienced maple syrup producers are passing on their skills to others aspiring to operate a successful sugar forest in Quebec, thanks to a vocational training program in Coaticook, in the Eastern Townships.

New vocational training program in Coaticook in Eastern Townships shaping next generation of syrup producers

Student René Lacroix, left, has big plans for retirement. At 64, he's bought a plot of land where he wants to build his sugar shack, in Bellechasse. (Rebecca Martel/CBC )

René Lacroix tramps through the knee-deep snow in the backwoods of the Eastern Townships, along with five other aspiring maple syrup producers.

They're all intent on finding out what it takes to operate a successful business in Quebec — the world leader in the production of the sweet syrup.

At 64, Lacroix is the oldest student in the new one-year training program being offered by Coaticook's Vocational Training Centre, but he's one of the most energetic.

Lacroix's plans for retirement include building a sugar shack from scratch on the plot of land he bought with his life's savings.

He said getting all this information now will allow him to avoid mistakes when the time comes.

"I only have 1,000 maple trees, and I want to make maple syrup in a cost-effective way," he said.
Denis Sage, a teacher with Coaticook's Vocational Training Centre, has been working in the maple syrup industry for 15 years and says he enjoys passing on some of the tricks he's learned. (Rebecca Martel/CBC)

From learning how to care for the trees throughout the year to recognizing the peak temperature at which to extract the maple water, the course covers every aspect of the trade, said instructor Denis Sage.

This is Sage's first time officially teaching the techniques he has learned over fifteen years of working in the industry.

"It's really cool, because I have more time to make sure they understand every aspect," he said.

Training recognized

While many producers pass on their skills from one generation to the next, Sage said having a recognized diploma opens doors when it comes to applying for government funding.

The Quebec Federation of Maple Syrup Producers also requires formal training to register a business.
Sonia Létourneau, a student at the Coaticook Vocational Training Centre, hopes she can work part-time at her family's sugar shack while continuing her career as a licensed practical nurse. (Rebecca Martel/CBC)

For Sonia Létourneau, that's incentive enough to sign up for the 1,000-hour course, which would help her manage the family business one day.

Well accustomed to the rush that comes each spring when temperatures drop and sap starts flowing, Létourneau is considering taking over from her father and uncle when they retire.

Létourneau, 35, is an licensed practical nurse. She said the gruelling workload in the health-care sector has pushed her to seek more balance in her life. 

 "I'd like to combine both careers." 
Six students are enrolled for the 1,000-hour course in Coaticook. (Rebecca Martel/CBC)

Coveted training across Quebec

Coaticook's new program is the fourth of its kind in the province. Similar training has been offered since 1998 in Lac-Mégantic, in the Eastern Townships, as well as in Saint-Arsène and Pohénégamook in the Lower St.Lawrence region. 

Close to 100 students from all over the province signed up this year for the online course offered by the Pohénégamook training centre.

Student Stéphanie Sauvé was won over by the hands-on Coaticook course, because it allows her to spend her days outdoors.
Student Stéphanie Sauvé enrolled to deepen her knowledge of the forest's ecosystem. She says being out in nature, in silence, is her version of a yoga class. (Rebecca Martel/CBC)

"I find it really relaxing. You're alone with nature," she said.

A forestry student from Stanstead, Que., Sauvé said it was important for her to get a better understanding of the ecosystem of a maple forest.

"When I get home I'm always tired, but it's a good tired."