Doug Thompson – Thompson’s Maple Products
By Jeanine Moyer
What do you get when you combine the centuries old tradition of making maple syrup with today’s modern farmer? Innovation and savvy marketing. That’s the approach Doug Thompson of Thompson’s Maple Syrup in Hilton Beach, ON has taken throughout his more than thirty years of tapping trees and making maple syrup.
As the largest certified organic producer and third largest maple syrup producer in Ontario, Thompson has spent his farming career “keeping one step ahead” of the competition. The farm and sugar bush are located one hour east of Sault Ste. Marie, in the Algoma district. “It’s very addictive, I love the excitement of the syrup season and being outdoors,” he says. Over the years Thompson has expanded his business by developing new market opportunities and most recently, introducing innovative wireless technology to his sugar bush.
Finding their market
In 1977, Thompson started with 2,500 taps when he bought the farm and worked in partnership with his dad. Today, Thompson’s Maple Syrup is still a family farm operated by Doug and his wife, Joyce. They tap 155 acres of maple bush with 20,000 taps, or approximately 15,000 trees. Thompson was only able to expand his business by developing new market and sales opportunities. “Computers are very important to our business,” he says. “We knew we wanted to increase our market sales by exporting syrup and developing our own website to connect with buyers helped that happen.” Approximately 25 per cent of their sales come from international exports to Japan, China, Korea and New Zealand. Some of Thompson’s largest customers have come from buyers finding them on the web. The remaining 75 per cent of sales are shipped within Canada and the US.
Looking for additional market opportunities, Thompson identified the organic market as an important opportunity. In 2004, the farm was certified organic – something he says was all part of staying ahead of the competition. “Maple syrup pricing is critical – you have to set your price high enough to make a profit but low enough to be competitive – that’s why going organic has helped us attract a different type of customer and set our product apart from the rest,” says Thompson. The farm also holds a number of other certifications allowing them to sell and export syrup across Canada and around the world.
The farm’s syrup season runs an average of five weeks each year. At their peak, the Thompsons produce 70 gallons of syrup per hour – no small feat since it takes 40 gallons of sap to make just one gallon of syrup. In 2013 they produced a total of 6,500 gallons of maple syrup. The syrup is stored in stainless steel barrels, allowing the family to package year round and customize orders.
Making more with technology
“Our biggest challenge is weather, followed closely by leaks in our sap tubing system,” says Thompson, who collects the sap by running plastic tubing to each of his 20,000 taps. Vacuum pumps suck sap from the tubing to collection tanks before boiling the sap into syrup. “We lose a lot of sap to tubing leaks,” he says. “Not to mention the work it takes, walking miles of tubing each day during sap season to find those leaks.” Thompson knew he needed to find a solution and turned to computers and technology again for help. He teamed up with a computer programmer in 2011, to develop a wireless remote monitoring system to automatically identify problems.
The monitoring system – Tap Track – cuts labour costs and increases sap production by reporting the status of the mainlines to Thompson’s computer or phone every few minutes. And alerts are sent when a problem occurs. Because the system is constantly monitoring, and censors can accurately identify the problem through GPS, leaks can be identified and fixed faster. The technology has increased Thompson’s sap collection by five per cent and reduced labour costs by cutting the number of staff repairing lines from five to two. In 2013 Thompson was awarded the Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence for the development of Tap Track.
Thompson has since formed a new company with the Tap Track’s programmer, marketing the wireless monitoring system. Tap Track is already being recognized by fellow maple syrup producers in Ontario and Vermont, US as adding value to their operation and reducing labour costs.
What’s next for Thompson? “I want to continue modifying our Tap Track system, adding more features like weather tracking and graphs,” he says. “I love what I do and I’m always doing something to update, improve or innovate.”