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I thought everyone would appreciate an article that provides an update on how the world of maple education is adapting to the pandemic. First, I suppose everyone realizes that normal is still a way off in the future, but that has not stopped us from delivering maple education. All the normal events, the Lake Erie Maple Expo, the Southern Syrup Research Symposium and the New York Mid-Winter Conference among others, have been cancelled. But in their place, a series of virtual maple programs have been delivered by specialists from across the maple producing regions. Let us step back to April and see where we have been and where we are going
In April 2020, everything came to a standstill as COVID-19 numbers increased in the United States. The pandemic had major impacts on the food production chain and food processing/distribution system. It was also a difficult time for Extension educators. Most of April and May were spent adjusting our work schedules to abide by rapidly changing health regulations. We were and are still working mostly from home. In-person meetings were all but cancelled, and teams of educators started brainstorming new ways to communicate with producers. It is very fortunate that we have access to virtual technologies in 2020 that were not available as little as just 5 years ago.
By June, plans were being formulated to find creative ways of delivering important information to our producers. As luck would have it, three universities from Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania (Ohio State, Penn State, and West Virginia’s Future Generations University) were awarded an ACER Access Grant in autumn 2019. The grant’s primary purpose was to conduct two surveys and collect information to help develop marketing opportunities across the region. Along with the surveys going out across the 3 states, outreach programs have been presented virtually with the next webinar launching at 7 PM on December 17th. COVID-19 slowed the survey timeline, but the first program series came out in June helping producers struggling to sell maple product during the pandemic. This was the first of what would become a series of monthly programs. In the months to follow, UVM Proctor Research Center and The Cornell Maple Program started producing virtual programs as well. In addition, we here at Ohio State University launched this new Ohio State Maple website that took much of my previous posts and expanded it to include contributions from additional authors as well as a host of education, extension, research, and other maple-related content.
For Ohio State University, decisions to drastically alter the long-established Extension model of outreach and education have not been easy decisions to make nor been made lightly. We hope our audiences understand and appreciate our commitment to new and virtual programming, but we also understand that virtual remote programming is far from perfect. We also understand that in the rural portions of our state internet connections are less than optimal providing barriers to accessibility. Many have found ways to adapt, and we are also recording and archiving programs so you can view them later at your convenience. We are also looking into ways we can deliver this current and relevant outreach to our Amish maple producers community
Where does this leave us going into the winter months, and when will in-person programming return? I cannot speak for other institutions because health rules vary from state-to-state, but this is what I see happening at OSU. Right now, we are operating under Ohio’s health mandate. Group size maximums are still set at 10 people (including instructors), though with increasing case levels, all in-person meetings are now on hold except for critical circumstances. Everyone including the instructor must wear a mask, and it is preferred that meetings be held outside. All meetings must strictly follow CDC guidelines. Because of the current and strict regulations at the state and university level, we have decided to continue with the path of virtual leaning. It is not unforeseeable to see the trend continuing far into 2021. A committee is currently planning the 2021 Ohio Maple Days, and it will be presented in a virtual format. Plans are to present the program virtually so that everyone can stay safe at home and view the program. The Ohio Maple Producers Association is making provisions to make the program available to those who do not have internet, details forthcoming. Pre-registration for the 2021 Ohio Maple Days will be required.
As we approach winter, uncertainty still looms on the horizon. I encourage you all to be patient, and if and as often as you can, to take advantage of the virtual programs being offered. We will continue to keep you posted on upcoming programs and events on the Ohio State Maple site. Just like you, I deeply miss the opportunity to attend events like the Lake Erie Maple Expo and fellowship in-person with everyone at the Ohio Maple Days event. Not being able to walk into a room filled with polished stainless and not being able to visit with my fellow producers is more than disappointing. Eventually, we will move beyond COVID-19, and the events we look forward too will return. And when they do, they will be bigger and better than ever. For now, be safe and stay healthy!
To read a previous post for additional background to the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, please read Les’ article from August. Additionally, you can view a presentation from the Out of the Woods: Enriching Your Maple Business webinar series on CFAP. Keep reading for updates on CFAP’s second round of assistance.
Ohio maple producers are now eligible for the second round of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP). Signup started on September 28 and will run until December 11, 2020, through your local USDA Farm Service Agency Office. This round of CFAP is slightly different from the first cycle. Unlike the first round where you were paid on the volume of sap produced in 2020, you will now be paid based on the revenue generated from your 2019 maple crop. This is an important difference! Be prepared to share records of your gross sales from your 2019 crop. USDA will convert that number to sap valuation, and you will receive a payment on a percentage of the 2019 crop.
The diagram below shows that lower level sales operations (under $49,999) will receive a slightly higher percentage compensation (10.6%) than higher sales producers (9.9%; $50,000-$100,000). Producers grossing more than that will see incrementally lower percentage rates of compensation, though differences are small.
We know that the 2020 season has not been easy for many maple producers. Reports from those that lean heavily on Internet sales have been positive, while those relying on local retail sales have suffered. With an uncertain holiday season ahead, maple syrup producers should consider taking advantage of all financial support that is available.
You have until December 11, 2020, to sign up. If you have questions, call your local USDA Farm Service Agency Office.
The news that maple is now included in the USDA’s list of crops eligible for Coronavirus Food Assistance Program relief is BIG! For more details, you can click back to this recent post by Les Ober.
On September 1 at 7 PM, make plans to attend a webinar hosted by Ohio State University, Future Generations University (WV), and Penn State that breaks down CFAP for maple producers. The webinar grows out of the region’s tri-state ACER collaborative. Specific topics include how to determine your operation’s eligibility for CFAP, how to fill out the CFAP application, and other practical help to take advantage of the relief program. Cindy Martel and Les Ober will be the speakers.
Our team is proud that this hyper-relevant topic will open a brand new series of free webinars for maple producers. The series will highlight diverse topics that enhance your maple business ranging from marketing and taxes to tree science and woodlot management. The series is called Out of the Woods: Enriching Your Maple Business.
As of August 12, 2020, maple syrup producers who have been impacted by the pandemic will now be eligible to apply for financial assistance from the USDA under the CFAP program (Coronavirus Food Assistance Program). Here is a little background information on how we arrived at where we are at today. COVID-19 has changed the American and global consumers’ buying habits. The pandemic has also impacted the work force required to process our food, and workers need to get food products on the table.
CFAP stands for Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. It was one of the first programs to be initiated by the United States Government to help the American farmer. Once the pandemic arrived, lawmakers were almost instantly aware that domestic agriculture was on a slippery slope. They recognized that farmers, who had already been under a severe financial strain for the last several years, were going to get hit doubly hard with the arrival of COVID-19. The first commodities to be included were livestock, dairy and grain. Livestock and dairy were in immediate need of assistance due to a radical shift in the food chain, and supplies of dairy products and meat were backing up in the system. Grain farmers have been subjected to declining markets since 2015. The pandemic along with other world events, such as African Swine Fever and trade tariffs have brought commodity prices to near record lows. Similar patterns occurred with many fruit and vegetable crops due to shifting market demand, inability to harvest, and untimely delivery constraints. Unfortunately, maple was excluded from the long list of specialty crops up until just a few days ago.
Maple has never been as susceptible as other crops to severe financial setbacks and wild cyclical price swings. Maple producers do an excellent job of marketing and for the most part there has not been a severe downtrend in maple syrup prices. The biggest factor impacting maple producers was that the timing of the pandemic hit U.S. soil at the exact same time that a new year’s crop was coming off the evaporators. Maple is somewhat unique in that it has a long shelf life and is produced in a relatively small region. No one knew in late March what impact the coronavirus would have on maple prices. It took 4 months of declining bulk and retail prices for the USDA to realize that maple was suffering a setback due to COVID-19. Certainly, no one was initially aware that COVID-19 would close festivals, fairs, and farmer’s markets across the country, but that was a huge blow to many sugar makers as well. Shuttered small businesses may have dealt the largest blow to the maple industry due to the sheer volume and distribution of specialty stores that handle local maple products. The second round of eligible CFAP payees again neglected maple producers, and legislators from major maple-producing states started to grow more vocal over the oversight.
Finally just last week, maple sap was included in the CFAP commodity list. The term maple sap may seem a little odd but that is what USDA has always referred to maple syrup with this product label. Maple is not a new commodity to USDA, and it has always been in their list of specialty crops. Other crops in that category include grapes, hay, and more. Specialty crops can initiate a Non-insured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP) payment when there is a natural disaster and a crop is severely impacted.
Now that maple has finally been added to the list of eligible crops for CFAP, producers must act fast to receive a payment. FSA (Farm Service Agency) offices will start taking applications on Aug 17, 2020. The deadline was originally August 28 but it has been extended until September 11, 2020. CFAP is open to all maple producers in all producing states, and any maple producer is eligible even if you have not requested the services of FSA before. If you have never worked with FSA, it is suggested that you make an appointment with your local FSA office to help fill out the application. There are several additional forms you will need to sign. Applications are also available online. Unless maple producers also raise other program crops, they will probably want to arrange a visit with their local FSA office for assistance.
Finally, USDA will also offer a webinar with recent CFAP updates for specialty crop producers on August 19 at 3 PM.
Well this has turned out to be quite a week! We knew it was going to be special with time change, a full moon, and Friday the 13th all rolled into one week. However, no one was expecting the coronavirus to descend upon us with the force of a Sherman tank. COVID-19 has shut down the world as we know it and it will make life difficult for some time into the future. Ohio’s maple season is ending, and the timing of the COVID-19 virus outbreak could not have come at a worse time for sugar makers with a full supply of maple syrup to market.
Right now, here are few things to think about if you depend on end-of-the-maple-season events to move a major portion of your crop. With the governor closing public events of 100 or more people, festivals, pancake breakfasts, and tours will all be impacted. This weekend, the Ohio Maple Tours are still proceeding but there have been several stops removed from the schedule. If you are on the Ohio Tour and you plan to be open, make sure that you know which stops are closed and inform your visitors. The worst thing for tour PR is to have people show up and only have half of the producers participating. Spread the word about closures. You should be getting this information from whatever associations are planning the tour. The end result will almost certainly be reduced traffic and sales. You need to plan to market in alternate venues later in the season.
While I have not heard yet, I expect many of the pancake breakfasts across the state may be cancelled. If so, that is a lot of maple syrup that will not be used. If you are one of the producers supplying syrup, work with the folks that are planning the event. Most of these events are major fundraisers for the organization that is sponsoring the breakfast. Remember they did not want this to happen. If they cut their syrup orders, be very understanding and work with them. We have no idea how long this COVID-19 outbreak will last. That means that forthcoming festivals and maple weekends may be impacted. Hopefully this will not last into the spring farmer’s market season, but it may. If it does, this raises a whole new level of concern.
Many people who visit farmer’s markets on a regular basis may be discouraged to attend for health reasons. Also, early season markets are often indoors or in sheltered areas. If you work these events you need to be aware of the potential health risks to you, your family, and your employees. One possible way to get around the problem is to use the Internet to market your product. Many vendors keep good records and have contact information for their customers. You can contact them by email or phone and set up delivery of maple products. If you sell a variety of products throughout the year, you might want to join a CSA, short for Community Supported Agriculture. CSAs are a great marketing tool for one or several producers working in a group to sell a variety of locally grown products to customers. Customers sign a contract to pick up a basket or box of local products every week for one flat price. It is a great way to introduce new and different value-added maple products to your customers.
Please be aware that this article was not written in a state of panic. It is written to get you thinking outside the box when it comes to marketing your maple products.