Founded by Knowlton family, major maple supplier reflects Quebec’s rich, complex industry
Local Journalism Initiative
A car’s headlights crawl across my ceiling in the wee hours of Friday morning: probably my neighbours’ son returning home along the quiet road as his family finishes boiling sap from 15,000 or so sugar-bush taps. The rain is pouring on my roof.
A few hours later, I check my maple trees. The big sap run from the day before has tapered off to almost nothing, as it didn’t freeze that night. I text a friend who has 40,000 taps. “Flowing like mad over here,” he wrote back. That difference between his trees and mine (500 taps) is likely because I don’t have a mechanical pump pulling sap out of the trees.
Several hours later, I’m driving on country roads northeast of Granby. Sugar bushes dot the landscape like a patchwork quilt. Blue pipelines thread through all but one. The old holdout has buckets with peaked lids and the remains of a sugar cabin rotted into the ground except for its deep-rust peaked roof, sitting like a huge bucket lid on the forest floor.
I’m on my way to Turkey Hill Sugarbush to interview its president, Tom Zaffis. The company’s Web site features beautiful photos of maple forests and charming old sugar cabins.
I was looking for a larger operation to profile for this article, to counterbalance my usual favouritism for small farms. Turkey Hill’s offices and bottling plant are in Granby’s industrial park, so I knew this would be no small farm. I would at last give the big guys some airtime.
Zaffis warned me ahead that Friday afternoons are quiet at the plant. The bottling operation is shut down. He greeted me at the reception, where he occupied the desk of a staff member off that afternoon.
I started with the eternal question asked of maple syrup producers: how many taps?
“None,” Zaffis replied.
The original Turkey Hill sugar bush morphed into a maple packaging company after founder Lloyd Herman bought his farm near Knowlton and created Turkey Hill Sugarbush Ltd. in 1976 to package and sell his products.
“At some point you have to decide what you are,” Zaffis said, and so Lloyd Herman and sons Michael and Brian and wife Donna built a maple bottling and marketing company out of their sugar bush.
It is now Canada’s leading supplier of travel and tourism sales of maple syrup. You can find Turkey Hill in every duty-free store and international airport in Canada.
The syrup itself comes from “several hundred producers.” Some supply as little as a barrel of syrup each year, others 50 barrels or more—all via the Quebec Maple Syrup Producers’ federation, which manages the province’s supply and quota system.
The Hermans have for the most part retired from the business, but Brian still serves as co-chair on the board of directors, with Tom Zaffis taking over as president and chief executive officer three years ago.
Zaffis has a 35-year career in maple under his belt, starting at Turkey Hill Sugarbush itself, where he was paid $4.50 an hour as a student. With that kind of wage, he decided to go back to school, doing a degree at Macdonald College in Montreal before returning to the industry.
He worked at Waterloo Evaporator, LB Maple Treats, and Lapierre before returning to Turkey Hill—and has operated about 500 taps on his own property in Foster “forever.”
One of Turkey Hill’s competitors, Maple Treats is now a neighbour in Granby’s industrial park and the largest maple packer in the world, according to Zaffis. Turkey Hill is a medium-sized company—“lower volume, higher margin,” Zaffis said, compared to the “high volume, low margin” approach of its four or five big competitors.
Turkey Hill was moving from Waterloo to Granby in 2020 when Covid hit, putting a major dent in the company’s business. With tourism being its niche, sales went the way of sap in a cold spell. While maple syrup sales were increasing in grocery stores around the world, people weren’t travelling and buying from tourist shops where Turkey Hill normally shines.
So Zaffis is diversifying the company, having recently obtained the certification to sell to grocery stores, among other projects. And he’s rebuilding the staff, after having to lay two-thirds off and then losing some to retirement and other employers during the pandemic.
Zaffis warns of a flood of bankruptcies if Covid causes another shutdown.
“It’s quite a dance show now,” he said of recovering from the economic blow and dealing with delays and shortages in his supply chain.
But, “2022 should be a decent year if we don’t get shut down again.”
Across from Turkey Hill’s parking lot, a red maple’s buds are opening, signalling the coming end of the season for those tapping reds in warmer parts of the Townships.
On my drive home, steam could still be seen rising happily out of sugar cabins old and new. Producers were boiling intently, as Tom Zaffis and Turkey Hill Sugarbush Ltd. waited for Monday morning, the return of staff, and a hopeful new spring in travel and tourism.
Scott Stevenson farms and writes at his home in Newport, Quebec.