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Students tap first trees for their new maple syrup business

by Sophie Kuijper Dickson
and Pierre Cyr
Fort Coulonge
Feb. 29, 2024
On Thursday morning, outdoor education students from École secondaire Sieur-de-Coulonge (ESSC) piled into their warmest winter clothes and headed out into the last sunny winter day of February.
The group, led by ESSC teacher Martin Bertrand, spent the morning tapping the maple trees on 10 of the 75 acres of forest on the land behind the school.
Tapping these trees is one of the first steps in a new business project Bertrand is getting off the ground with students from the school’s outdoor education program.
Over the next three years at least, he plans to lead the students in developing a small maple syrup business that will sell its products back to the school.
“The goal is to produce maple syrup for the school’s events,” Bertrand said, admitting that at the moment, the school often uses artificial syrup for the various feasts it hosts.
Offering homemade maple syrup at the school’s pancake suppers is a . . .

welcome benefit of the project, but only peripheral to what Bertrand is really trying to do, which is teachstudents to become business leaders.
“The real entrepreneurial mindset will be taught, encouraging perseverance and leadership of different kids,” Bertrand said.
The core group of 24 students from secondary 3, 4 and 5 have already begun developing a business plan and drafting a budget.
Through this project, they will learn to identify good trees for tapping, learn different methods of tapping trees and collecting and processing the sap, and learn to adapt their business plan when unfavourable weather conditions affect their forecasted harvests.
The students will also develop a forestry strategy to take care of the forest diversity and maximize the potential of the maple trees’ growth.
Down the road, the young entrepreneurs will use a $500 grant from provincial non-profit organization OSEntreprendre to purchase a sap evaporator, but getting that set up will involve building an ESSC sugar shack, which will take some time.
For the time being, Bertrand has partnered with a local sugar shack, Pourvoirie du Lac Bryson, which will help the students boil their sap this year.
“I’m thinking it’s not going to be an awesome year this year because of the weather, but it’s a start,” Bertrand said.
Students keen to get outside
In the sugar bush on Thursday morning, the students, armed with stacks of metal pails and tree taps borrowed from local syrup producers, were keen to get going on their new business endeavour.
‘’It is a nice project, it helps us to go outside’’ said Emma Rochon, one of the students. She said she thinks the project will motivate students to go to school.
“It’s a nice experience, and we’re lucky to be able to do this maple syrup business project at school,” Gabriel Mallette, another student at the school, told THE EQUITY in French, adding that like Rochon, he loves that this project makes it possible for him to spend time outside.
For Éva Graveline, a third student participating in the program, the big lesson was about what can be achieved when people work together.
“It makes me realize that teamwork is important,” Graveline said.
While the maple syrup season may be short, Bertrand hopes this teamwork will continue throughout the summer and into the next school year, in preparation for growing the business next spring.
He will be encouraging the students to keep an eye out for old doors, windows and wood that can be used to build a new sugar shack next school year.
“We really want to show that we can do something without going to buy new, and create different situations where they can try and work together,” he said.
Bertrand believes getting students outside of the classroom can do wonders for engaging them in learning.
“The potential for education with this program is beyond regular school. There’s application of sciences, of nature, of history and geography,” he said.
The bigger picture motivating Bertrand in starting this new business program is helping the students realize there are great opportunities in the Pontiac.
“We often hear the Pontiac is a place where there’s nothing,” Bertrand said.
“I believe it’s the other way around. It’s a place where the opportunities are there. So if we have entrepreneurs that have the itch to start their own businesses and bring something new to the Pontiac, we can teach these skills, teach this mindset, and work with kids in school. Then I think the Pontiac, in 10 to 20 years, will be a whole different place.”