Coronavirus in Massachusetts: Maple producers, sugar shacks were having successful year before COVID-19

Maple producers got an early start this year, with trees being tapped in January.

“As far as maple production, Mother Nature is on our side,” said Missy Leab, the third generation of the Leab family to work the Ioka Valley Farm in Hancock, a small town in the Berkshires.

But then the coronavirus hit, halting the New England tradition of visitors flocking to the sugar shacks for demonstrations, taste tests and large stacks of pancakes.

There are about 300 maple producers in the state. About 20 of those have restaurants and many more allow visitors to encourage sales.

On Sunday evening, Gov. Charlie Baker announced five new public health orders, including a mandate that all restaurants and bars in the state would not be allowed to serve customers on-site.

For multiple maple producers, it was a no brainer to shut down to protect the community, their employees and their product. But it still hurts.

“We don’t get to decide when the sugaring season is. It happens based on nature,” said Winton Pitcoff, coordinator of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association. “We count on this time of year.”

Loss of sales

Leab’s cafe at Ioka Valley Farm opened the cafe and started Sugar House tours and tastings in early February. Normally it would have been open through April 5.

Instead, closures came during the busiest time of the year.

Based on the past three years, Leab estimates her maple syrup sales will be cut by more than 50% and cafe sales will be right at 50% loss.

“A lot of restaurants are being impacted by this,” she said. But when you’re seasonal “this has a whole different kind of impact.”

A third of her sales also goes to a local college and private high school. Both are closed due to the virus.

“This is significantly affecting two thirds of our sales for the next several months because of the trickle effect,” she said.

56 locations were expected to participate in this year’s maple weekend, an event that has now been canceled.

Last year Pure BS Maple Shack, a small business in Central Massachusetts, had about 200 visitors from the event.

“People like to come out. They like to do the tour. They like the smell of the waft of sugar in the air and the boiling from the evaporator,” said owner Bruce Hopper. “All that fun stuff.”

It’s also when he sells a significant portion of his maple syrup.

Now, owners are having to get creative.

Multiple sugar shacks are offering curbside or drive-up sales. Customers can contact them on Facebook, email or by calling. “We’ll make arrangements,” Hopper said.

Other places are also stepping up to help with the local businesses. Worcester regional food hub recently bought syrup from Hopper to help with sales, and Discover Central Massachusetts has contacted him to figure out ways they can be supportive.

Loss of community

It’s not just sales that are being lost — it’s also the sense of community many sugar shack restaurants provide.

“We have long tables, we don’t have booths. We more or less make people sit next to each other and talk to strangers,” said Steve Holt, owner of Steve’s Sugar Shack, located in Westhampton, a town in Hampshire County. “It’s just amazing how many people meet people that they have a connection to.”

He said it’s not uncommon for him to see people reconnect after years of not seeing one another.

“In my restaurant, it’s not really a restaurant for food,” he said. “It’s a restaurant for socialization, and just having a real good sit down meal with friends — or friends that you just made that day.”

But restaurants, bars and schools have had to close, people are working from home and events have all been canceled to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The social isolation could cause a loneliness epidemic, according to VOX.

“The health effects of loneliness are astounding,” Carla Perissinotto, the associate chief for geriatrics clinical programs at UC San Francisco, told VOX.

Julie and Steve said they get a real joy out of their restaurant and providing this kind of community.

“That’s the heartbreaking part about this,” said Julie. “Social distancing is kind of the opposite of our whole mission.”

Providing a different kind of support

There is good news: Maple syrup doesn’t spoil.

“Everyone who’s making maple syrup will have lots of maple syrup available to sell,” said Pitcoff.

It’s also safer than your average store bought sweetener, said Massachusetts Maple Association President Howard Boyden.

“It’s very local. And there’s been a whole lot less hands on it by the time the consumer gets it,” he said.

Also most farms are family run and operated. For example, while Pure BS Maple Shack gets help from friends and family to tap the sap, Hopper is often the only one boiling and bottling the syrup.

The farms, Boyden added, are also almost always remote, giving them extra distance from virus-impacted communities.

Some communities are talking about how to make up for the loss of springtime sales once the pandemic is all over. One idea is bringing back Maple weekend in the fall.

“When we cool off in the fall, maple syrup becomes another comfort food,” Leab said.

For Leab’s farm they will also have all their pumpkins available. So, it’s the perfect time to encourage people to get out and see their local sugar makers, she said.

But those looking to help these local businesses right now can continue to buy syrup online or at curbside or buy gift cards to use next year.

Steve’s Sugar Shack will be open for two hours each Saturday and Sunday this season for people to pick up maple syrup orders.

One customer suggested people pick up their maple syrup and make breakfast at home — creating their own sense of community.

Then next year, they can all get together at Steve’s Sugar Shack and tell their stories, Julie said.

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