Hupacasath plans to boost maple syrup production

Port Alberni, BC

Talk about a sweet deal.

Thanks to some provincial funding, Hupacasath First Nation will be greatly expanding its already successful maple syrup operation. The Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation recently received almost $100,000 in grant money to increase the productivity of its Kleekhoot Gold Bigleaf Maple Syrup Farm.

The maple syrup farm was one of 153 projects from across British Columbia to receive a grant from the provincial government, which handed out almost $14 million via one-time grants. This funding is targeted to assist individuals, communities and economies in rural B.C.

About $9 million of the funding is to help rural community development. Funding was provided to assist 114 projects in this category. And the remaining funding, almost $5 million, was awarded to 39 trail and recreation projects. First Nations, municipalities and not-for-profit organizations were eligible for the grants.

Hupacasath Chief Executive Officer Rick Hewson said his First Nation had submitted a grant request through the Rural Dividend Fund to the provincial government in the spring of 2019.

“Unfortunately, we were not funded in that initial round,” Hewson said.

All those that had submitted applications via the Rural Dividend Fund were notified that provincial officials had a change of heart and money would be reallocated to assist forestry workers and those affected by mill closures.

Earlier this year, however, provincial officials went back and reviewed applications for the 2019 Rural Dividend Fund. Many of those applicants were awarded funding to provide a boost during the pandemic.

“Unfortunately, it was a result of COVID-19,” Hewson said of the funding. “But that was very exciting news (when we found out we would receive a grant).”

Besides Hupacasath First Nation, three other Nuu-chah-nulth groups were also notified that they would receive funding. They were the Bamfield Huu-ay-aht Community Forest Society (BHCFS), Nuu-chah-nulth Seafood Limited Partnership (NSLP) and Tseshaht First Nation’s Commercial and Industrial Land Development.

The BHCFS received $32,450 to support the planning, initial layout of trails and the construction of a trail loop within the Bamfield Huu-ay-aht Community Forest. The forest is located beside the communities of Bamfield and Ancala.

Meanwhile, the NSLP was granted $170,784. This money will be partly used to determine the capacity to deliver large-scale ocean farming of seaweed by communities on Vancouver Island’s west coast.

And Tseshaht First Nation received $100,000, money that will go towards determining how to best utilize land to increase its economic development.

Hewson said the provincial grant money Hupacasath received will go towards expanding its existing maple syrup operation. As of this year, the company has been tapping about 1,300 bigleaf maple trees located on the First Nation’s Number 2 reserve, Kleekhoot.

Hewson said Hupacasath began its operation, which now includes a pump house, after local officials visited maple syrup businesses in Quebec in 2018. Hupacasath’s business has been expanding since an initial trial run of 100 trees to figure out how much sap they could produce.

Hewson said there is a need for expansion now.

“The demand is an interesting one,” he said. “So far we’ve only been able to produce about 2,000 bottles in a season.”

All of those bottles disappear quickly once they are offered for sale. Restaurants and cruise ship terminals are among those who are keen to sell Hupacasath’s maple syrup.

“The issue is they want a consistent supply,” Hewson said.

Hewson added that can’t be done unless the business expands.

“Our goal is at minimum to produce 5,000 to 6,000 bottles a year,” he said.

To that end, Hupacasath will be putting its grant money towards expansion.

“Our goal is to have 4,000 to 5,000 trees under tap,” Hewson said, adding the expansion project, which will also include building new pump houses, will take place over the next 24 months.

Hupacasath officials are in the midst of figuring out if all the trees they will be tapping in the future will be located within its territory.

“That’s first and foremost where we’re looking at,” Hewson said. “But we’re in discussions as well with different privately-owned lands.”

Hewson added Hupacasath officials realize they have a business which is attracting plenty of attention.

“Commercial maple syrup sugaring is pretty unique in B.C.,” he said.

The First Nation has benefitted from the more than 22 million people seeing an American-made documentary on Hupacasath’s maple syrup business last year.

“After that we received orders from all over the United States,” he said.

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