BIG SIX TOWNSHIP, Maine — Benoit and Alcide Giroux are Quebecers, but because of the geographic oddity that is the largest American maple sugarbush, they’re third-generation Maine farmers.

In the 1950s, their grandfather started tapping trees in this Somerset County township, just across a one-lane St. John River bridge from Sainte-Aurelie, Quebec. Canadians living nearby have made maple syrup in this desolate corner of Maine for more than a century.

The brothers took over the family’s sugaring business in the 1980s, growing the operation from 2,000 taps to 82,000, producing around 350,000 pounds of syrup per year that fetches $2.25 per pound wholesale. Big Six is the largest U.S. sugarbush, comprising 340,000 taps and a quarter of Maine’s syrup production.

But it’s tied up with landowner Paul Fortin’s bottom line, which has created uncertainty about the heritage crop, leaving leaseholders and Maine’s maple industry to hover somewhere between eternal preservation and a devastating blow.

Big Six is expected to apply for an award under the Land for Maine’s Future program this year that would complete a deal giving Fortin a $5.7 million conservation easement, preserving the sugarbush and allowing access and recreational activities on more than 23,000 acres.

If the Madison businessman doesn’t get it by 2018’s end, the 20-year leases signed this year by producers can be terminated. The sugarbush could be cut. And a way of life that sustained generations of cross-border tenant farmers would likely perish.

The Girouxs are mostly ambivalent about the easement. Their concerns are more immediate.

After generations of easy relationships with landowners, the new leases raised the price that operators pay Fortin per tap from about 63 cents to $1.25. The Girouxs argue that they were boxed into signing because of their long-term investment there — a sugarhouse, cabins, pumping stations and other infrastructure.

Benoit, 57, of Saint-Prosper, Quebec, said he chose to speak to a reporter because he’d rather see his operation “die right now” in a conflict with Fortin “than die slowly” because of high costs. Fortin dismisses the Girouxs as difficult partners who snubbed chances to negotiate and said they’re the only unhappy producers.

Past threats by Fortin to cut the trees have led to the easement push. That and the leases — seen as high by neutral observers — illustrate his leverage over Maine’s maple industry. It has led to wide support for the easement, even if his tactics haven’t.

“What other industry would put up with being threatened to have 25 percent of its output eliminated? Nobody would. There would be outcry everywhere,” said Kathryn Hopkins, a maple expert at the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension. “And that’s what this situation is. Maine needs that production.”

The landscape changes

The Big Six Forest’s 340,000 maple taps are managed by eight leaseholders who belong to a Quebec cooperative that told the state in 2013 that it produced 90 percent of Maine’s maple syrup. The industry is centered near the international border in Somerset County, where Quebecers live closer to the trees than most Mainers.

They’re attracted to Maine because while Quebec makes more than 70 percent of the world’s syrup and controls world pricing, its industry is controlled by a government-sanctioned cartel that limits syrup sales to keep prices artificially high.

In the U.S., producers can sell all of what they produce. At Big Six, most is shipped to Vermont and New Hampshire. The Girouxs sell to Bascom, a New Hampshire wholesaler.

Fortin bought the land in 2012 from Timbervest, LLC. A company his family controls took out a $6.3 million mortgage alongside a real estate company controlled by two Quebec businessmen who are partners with Fortin in other Maine holdings.

The maple industry wasn’t on Fortin’s mind. He said he “bought the land to cut the wood.” But this came after a task force convened by the Maine Legislature released a 2011 report saying the maple industry should be expanded and better promoted, especially given Quebec’s quotas.

Gov. Paul LePage’s administration and the maple industry caught wind of Fortin’s plans to cut the sugarbush and urged against it. The state’s intervention led Fortin to nix the plans, a decision that he says cost him millions of dollars. If he “moved the feller bunchers in to cut that 4,000 acres” of sugarbush, he said, “all hell would have broken out.”

So, he set out to win a conservation easement with help from the Trust for Public Lands, a national conservation group that helped him broker a 2012 deal with the state to preserve 5,700 acres around Seboeis Lake near Millinocket.

In 2014, he gained $3.5 million from the federal Forest Legacy Program with wide support. The Land for Maine’s Future award would supplement the Forest Legacy money and could complete the easement for Fortin.

The LePage administration also supports the project, which has attracted attention since Fortin has donated to the governor’s political action committee and his 2014 re-election campaign. However, LePage backed the Forest Legacy award before then.

But Rep. Russell Black, R-Wilton, a logger and syrup producer who chaired the 2011 task force, said even though he supports the project, he “walked away” from aiding the Forest Legacy piece for a year because of Fortin’s “threats” to cut the trees and lack of assurance that they’d stay.

“He’s not the nicest person to do business with,” said Black, who nevertheless supports the award to maintain Maine’s maple capacity. “He’s a shrewd businessman.”

‘It’s their land and we can’t do anything’

Fortin’s ownership has triggered a culture change for the landowners. Until the 1990s, the land was owned by International Paper and the Girouxs said there were few problems.

The Timbervest contract with the cooperative — which charged just over 63 cents per tap in production — expired in April 2015. After an impasse, the terms of that contract were extended for the next maple season.

Before this maple season, Fortin wanted more. He said he arrived at the final per-tap price of $1.25 after looking at nearby leases and analyzing the value of the wood and sap.

Rheaume Rodrigue, a Big Six producer whose son, Bernard, is the president of the co-op, said while members “would like to have a better contract than that,” the terms still allow producers to make money.

“It’s OK,” he said. “It’s their land and we can’t do anything.”

The Girouxs signed the deal, but Fortin and Rodrigue said the brothers were the only members who didn’t attend meetings. Fortin said while other producers were “somewhat happy” with the deal, Benoit Giroux has tried to “throw a monkeywrench” into it.

Benoit Giroux called the deal “a one-way contract” that diminishes his ability to invest more in the operation. U.S. tax records provided by the brothers show they made a gross total $725,000 on syrup in 2016 under old lease terms, but split just over $330,000 in profit.

It’s a high-cost operation: The electricity grid doesn’t reach Big Six, so generators run everything and the Girouxs spent more than $40,000 on fuel alone last year to run their equipment.

Bill Jarvis, a forest manager who handles 10 maple leases comprising more than 200,000 taps on the Hilton Timberlands in Jackman, said per-tap prices there are confidential, but they’re less than state leases at nearby Sandy Bay Township, which run between 50 and 66 cents per tap.

Jarvis called Big Six an example of “short-term greed” on Fortin’s part and questioned whether he’d cut the trees, saying while Fortin may do better in the short term to harvest the maple trees than to lease them, Big Six would quickly pay off because of the per-tap prices that he called “too high” at the rural outpost.

“I manage land and I harvest timber all the time and I can tell you it just doesn’t make any sense any way, shape or form,” he said. “It’s solely — I don’t want to use the word, but it’s almost like extortion.”

But Black said the conservation project is still a valuable one, seeing just “one way forward” for Maine’s maple industry: Give Fortin the easement and “fight the next battle with him” if production is endangered by future conflict between the landowner and leaseholders.

Fortin said without the easement, he would have to consider cutting the trees. “I’ve got to make the payments” on the mortgage, he said, adding that his long-term plan is to pass it to his sons.

They may hold hope for Maine’s maple industry: He said they’re considering someday building a bottling plant for Big Six producers on the U.S. Route 201 corridor between Skowhegan and Moscow. That would keep more Maine syrup in Maine, but nothing’s certain.

“The younger half of the family is interested in that, not the older half,” he said. “No, I’m in the woods business and I’m getting long in the tooth for that.”

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...