Day 6

Quebec maple syrup producers say they're being bullied by the cartel that controls their industry

The holidays are a lucrative time for Quebec maple syrup producers. But Steve Côté says he won't be making any money this year because the federation that controls the industry has charged him half a million dollars in fees and fines. Côté tells Brent Bambury why he believes the federation is an out-of-control cartel that threatens the industry.
Some Quebec syrup producers say the industry is run like a cartel and they are getting fed up with the bullying. (Stu Mills/CBC)

In 2013, the union that is supposed to protect maple syrup producer Steve Côté and his small business showed up at his door and took away every drop of his syrup.

They did the same in 2014. Then, last year, they went even further — sending security guards to watch over the syrup 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

As Côté tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury, the guards were watching more than the syrup. 

"They were also watching me. Even the people coming to the sugar shack, the guards were taking licence plate numbers and names. It's like visiting someone in jail," he says.

Côté owns a farm in Saint-Mathias-de-Bonneterre, Quebec. He produces maple syrup for a living, just like his father did before him. But Côté has to contend with the Fédération des producteurs acéricoles du Québec. And he's not happy about it.

They were asking for $656,000 in fines... I never thought producing maple syrup would cost me so much.- Steve Côté

A post on the organization's website says its mission is to "defend and promote our members' economic, social, and moral interests."

Côté says that's not the case. In fact, he says the union behaves more like a cartel — and hinders his freedom as an entrepreneur.

Under the Fédération's control, individual producers are told how much syrup they can produce, where they can sell it and what price they're going to get for it. They're also expected to pay the Fédération 12 cents for every pound of syrup they sell.

That didn't jive with Côté, who opted to sell his product outside the set parameters. When the Fédération found out in 2012, it took legal action.

"They sent me some legal papers," he says. "One of the first letters I got, they were asking for $656,000 in fines. It's a lot of money. I never thought producing maple syrup would cost me so much."


Rebellion among Quebec syrup producers

Maple syrup sells for more than 20 times the price of oil, and Quebec produces around 70 per cent of the world's supply. That translates to more than $800-million for Canada's economy. 

Côté prefers an open market — so, despite being forced to join the Fédération, he gave himself permission to bend the rules. He started selling what he wanted, when he wanted, to whomever he wanted. And he says he's not alone. 

"I would say about 70 per cent of the producers are doing the same thing that I'm doing, but not on the same level. I don't know many of them that are playing by the rules," Côté says.

Steve Côté, a maple syrup producer in the Eastern Townships, says he should have the right to export his own product. (CBC)

He also says most of the discouraged producers don't want to complain in public, because they know if they do, the Fédération will go after them.

In most cases, the union owes the producers quite a bit of money. According to Côté, that fear of retribution keeps them quiet.

"I know a couple in their eighties," he says. "They've been making maple syrup for the last 56 years and they've got 8,000 taps. Now they face a fine of more than $284,000."

"That's the value of their sugar bush; that's the value of the whole thing. They've been working their whole lives, and now they're [the union] going to throw them in the street? It's ridiculous."


On breaking the rules

In the 1980s and 1990s, there was little-to-no regulation in the syrup market. Simon Trépanier, executive director the Fédération des producteurs acéricoles du Québec, says the union's rules were developed to help boost development in a stagnant market.

"The price was awful — some years very high, some years very low — and the exports were on the downside," Trépanier says. "The rules made the price stable and made sure that the market is developed."

Trépanier says his organization made the rules, set the price, and stabilized the Quebec's syrup industry.

"There's a lot of benefit that Mr. Côté is receiving, and there aren't many people interested in going back to 1990," he says. 

Quebec maple syrup producer Steve Côté won't be making any profit this year, because he owes the province's federation of syrup producers a cool $656,000. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Not surprisingly, Côté doesn't agree. He says his father was producing in the '80s and '90s and the industry was growing every year.

"Maple syrup wasn't born when the Fédération started," says Côté.

Threat to livelihood

If Côté's standoff with the Fédération des producteurs acéricoles du Québec keeps going this way, he'll have to shut the doors.

"I'm working here and there and my wife is working so we're trying to keep up but I don't think we'll be able to do it for that long," he says, adding that he doesn't expect he'll be able to pay the fine: "Not unless I win the lottery."

Still, Côté believes the situation can be fixed. 

In February, the government of Quebec recommended that the Fédération loosen up its rules on maple syrup production. That ruling came down from the Agriculture Minister.

"There were 22 recommendations but nothing has been done yet," Côté says.