The International Plowing Match & Rural Expo is hosted at a different location in Ontario each year and is the largest outdoor show in Canada. Annual attendance averages 75,000 with the largest approaching 100,000 people. Plowing matches have been part of Ontario’s agricultural history for well over a century and the event highlights rural life and the different rural communities across the Province. These events are huge and comprise of 50 or more different organizing committees, 1200 volunteers, and 1,000 acres of loaned farm land just to make the event work. The 2015 International Plowing Match was hosted by the United Counties of Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry near the town of Finch, Ontario from September 22 to 26, 2015 and the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers were there. The Ontario Maple Producers’ booth was located in the History & Heritage Tent, one of several themed areas hosted at the Rural Expo part of the event.
Members from the Eastern Ontario Local of OMSPA along with some help from the Ottawa Valley Local hosted a 15 x 20 booth for 5 straight days of maple marketing and education that was very well received by the public. With 5 to 7 volunteers lined up each day they tried something a little different by leaving the syrup at home and sampled pure maple sugar exclusively. Consumer response was fantastic. 90% of people visiting the booth had never heard of maple sugar before and even fewer had ever tasted it. Without fail the first question asked was “Where can we buy it?” which was referred to the producers map on the new OntarioMaple.com website.
Bryan Exley, President of the Eastern Local of the Ontario Maple Producers Association, commented “What’s great about sampling the sugar is that not only is it of great interest to consumers but they can’t price point it at the local Walmart or Costco like they can for maple syrup. We are encouraging people to develop a relationship with their local producer, farmers market, or specialty shop for their on-going maple sugar supplies and we expect the syrup sales to follow.” Another local producer that had also volunteered for the event Cheryl Wightman was equally impressed at the public interest in maple sugar. “We sample maple products all the time at farmers markets but I had never thought of sampling sugar. I will be adding this to my market booths.”
In addition to the popular maple sugar sampling there was a tap collection on display with samples dating back to the very early 1800’s all sorted into a time line. Many of the visitors to the display were surprised to see that plastic fittings and tubing first appeared in the 1960’s and had regarded tubing as a fairly recent practice. Many questions were asked about all the different designs of a basic spile with the wooden Aboriginal samples drawing the most interest. The entire collection was on loan to the Ontario Maple Producers Association for the event from Tom Stephenson of the Pembroke, Ontario area.
Conservation and sustainability of maple production was another key area the Ontario producers were promoting by partnering with the local Nation Conservation Authority for the event. Woodlot advisory services and forest management plans were encouraged but a cross cut of a maple tree tapped during the Second World War was the center of attention. This tree had been cut in 2015 as part of farm land clearing and showed healthy growth for 50 years since last being tapped for maple syrup. First tapping shows at about 35 years of growth and spanned World War II – likely as a local sugar supply during rationing. The maple tree was over 100 years old when it was finally cut down and shows an interesting range of tap hole types and sizes with some still filled with cork from 75+ years ago.
Over the 5 day event there were more than 85,000 attendees and it’s estimated 10,000 visited the maple booth. 3,600 maple samples were given out and local producers were getting calls from customers looking to purchase maple sugar even before the event was over. Based on the success of this event the Eastern Local has partnered with the Lanark & District Local on a proposal to attend the Ottawa Food Show next fall to once again sample sugar only to a much different audience. The Ottawa Food show typically attracts younger urban affluent professionals interested in quality and unusual foods – a key market that was identified in a recent market research project conducted by the Ontario Maple Producers Association.