MONTREAL -- A Quebec tradition is currently going through a dark period.

A quarter of the 200 sugar shacks in Quebec that serve traditional Quebecois meals are no longer in business and another quarter of these establishments have changed their facilities forever to produce syrup only, a new study revealed.

The sugar shacks that had to close did so "at the worst time" last season, on the eve of the start of their season, when the fridges were full of cane marinades, sugar pies and a host of other traditional cooked foods.

"To close a sugar season is to lose an entire year of income," explained Stephanie Laurin, author of the study and owner of Chalet des érables, a sugar shack in Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines, in the Laurentians, about 45 minutes north of Montreal.

To make the picture a little bleaker, among the hundred sugar shacks still in operation, 16 plan to produce only syrup and 37 plan to go out of business by April if nothing changes, the report reads.

The study's conclusion is devastating for the tourist industry.

"Without the 2021 sugar seasons and without direct help, 75 per cent of the sugar shacks serving the traditional meal will have disappeared leaving 53 survivors." it reads.

"It's like saying that we make wine in Italy, but that we can no longer go to vineyards to taste it," said Laurin. She said the reality will be very sad for Quebec "to have this loss on the conscience."

Laurin, who is also at the head of the Association des Salles de Reception et Érablières du Québec (ASEQC), believes that governments should inject liquidity into these companies and would like to have a clear picture of what will happen next.

Laurin's study was sent to the Ministry of Tourism in the last few days by the Association of Agrotourism and Gourmet Tourism of Quebec.

Minister of Tourism Caroline Proulx's spokesperson Sandra O'Connor said that the cabinet "had the opportunity to discuss with the organization" and that it intends to evaluate the findings of the study.

The industry is asking the ministry to act posthaste.

"It's past midnight," said Josee Lafrance, who manages two large-scale sugar shacks in Monteregie: La Grillade, in Saint-Alphonse-de-Granby, and La Goudrelle, in Mont-Saint-Grégoire.

The sugar season is usually planned as early as October with preparations made for homemade fruit ketchup, beets and pickles.

"All of this preparation is done when the vegetables are at their peak, at their full potential," said Lafrance. "At home, we peel them by hand and usually chop no less than 2,700 kilograms of beets. And then, they marinate and macerate to have a production that is ready for opening when the maples start to drip."

The future looks so bleak this year so beets can rest easy. Not a single vegetable saw the shadow of a knife. Lafrance's business has already recorded $1 million in losses, or 96 per cent of its turnover.

Its location is a reflection of its sector. Sugar shacks have lost more than 90 per cent of their income, according to a survey conducted with the ASEQC.

Sugar shack owners still have not digested Minister of Economy and Innovation Pierre Fitzgibbon's response to a call for help launched last spring by the wife of an owner.

"I suggest that if your issue is related to your mortgage to consider protecting yourself from your creditors," the minister wrote among others in an email exchange the Canadian Press obtained a copy of.

"As a good Quebecer, that means: 'Go bankrupt. Thank you. Good day,'" said Frédéric Paiement in protest.

Paiement owns the AKabane maple grove, in Saint-Esprit, in Lanaudière.

The minister's response shows a flagrant lack of compassion, he said.

"You, you are next to the boat, you are drowning," he said. "Instead of sending you a buoy, he sends you a brick."

Paiement ultimately did not follow the minister's advice. He converted part of his business to an online store and used a truck to do street food. These changes allow it to generate some income and to employ employees.

"We are on the ventilator," he added.

Maple grove owners say they were "insulted and hurt" by the minister's response to their "cry from the heart" which is not just for the sugar shacks, but the entire industry.

The sugar shack's precarious situation is very worrying in Montérégie, where several of them are concentrated.

"It's a market that is extremely lucrative and important for the region, which generates a lot of tourist activity," said Mario Leblanc, general Manager of Tourisme Montérégie.

He wants public health to announce that it will allow the establishments to be allowed to open for the end of February, beginning of March.

Listen as Daniel Laurin, owner of Chalet des Érables in Ste-Anne des Plaines talks about the issue on CJAD 800 Radio:

-- this report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 12, 2020.