Proper variety selection, grading and marketing could make Okanagan garlic a gourmet product
KELOWNA, B.C. — A self-proclaimed science geek is hoping to revolutionize the garlic industry.
Bill Campbell wants to overthrow thousands of years of tradition on how to grow, pick and sell the savory bulbs that add zest to food.
Campbell grew up in Trail, B.C., where garlic was a popular recipe ingredient in many homes.
He went on to help spawn the software industry in Vancouver and was a consultant to the Premier’s Advisory Council for Science and Technology. He also worked at labs at Cominco, Hewlett Packard and the University of British Columbia.
Campbell and his wife, Linda, looked for a way to supplement their income when they moved to Kelowna and Linda retired.
He wondered whether he could turn a passion into a money maker, but before establishing Okanagan Gourmet Garlic, he did the necessary research.
“From here to mid-Washington state is probably the finest garlic-growing region in the world,” he said about what he discovered.
That was a revelation, but he also noticed something equally interesting.
“Growing garlic in Okanagan is just like growing grapes in the ’60s and ’70s,” Campbell said.
“They had the wrong varieties and they tried to get the highest yield from them: 10, 20 tons an acre. There was no added value, no grading of the grapes. Garlic is exactly the same way. No one was grading their garlic. They were all selling it by the pound. It was a bulk commodity.”
Campbell would like to convince other growers that they should grow only the finest garlic and build a worldwide brand as did Okanagan grape growers and wine makers. He thinks they could create a festival that would rival the Okanagan Wine Festival,and the garlic festival in Gilroy, Calif., which draws 100,000 people a year.
The inquiring mind necessary to run science experiments in a lab is also an asset in the garlic field.
“Anything that didn’t make sense to me, I would do an experiment. Weird things go on out on the garlic patch,” he said.
“When you see an anomaly and you follow through and plant it, in time it will certainly improve your own stock or possibly, like I did, discover your own variety.”
His variety is Darwin, a mutation of the Italian variety that he experimented with for four years. He thinks it is akin to the original plant from 10,000 years ago.
“Darwin is a good name, as Darwin wrote about this phenomenon extensively,” Quentin Charles Cronk, who runs the Cronk lab at UBC wrote in an email to Campbell.
“He called mutations ‘sports’ and was fascinated by horticultural mutations.”
Campbell’s crop has increased from 4,500 bulbs four years ago, to 50,000 this year. Of those, 900 are Darwin.
“We had no intention of getting this big,” he said. “This is way out of control. It takes an enormous amount of work to go through the drying and cleaning stage. With 50,000 bulbs, I would need to hire 10 to 20 people, and I said no way. That’s when I in-vented the U-pick.”
He uses repurposed equipment from the tobacco and ginseng industries to cut the five-foot tops off the garlic and then lifts the entire bed from below, cutting the roots and letting the garlic cure in the ground.
“All the garlic is lying on the top of the ground under a shade cloth,” he said.
“No pulling, no digging. You pick up the garlic and brush off the dirt. You can pick 10 Gourmet Garlic bulbs in less than five minutes.”
Campbell grows seven varieties that he hopes will appeal to a broad cross section of people,
“I selected each variety for a specific feature that I thought would have specific appeal in the foodies sector, which is part of our target market,” he said. “The second target market is the ‘fed-ups,’ people fed up with California and Chinese garlic.”
He grows mostly hard neck garlic, which he said is richer and more flavourful.
“Every thing in the grocery stores is soft neck. They don’t have flavour,” he said. “They have bite and they have aroma, but the hard necks have all kinds of beautiful, rich flavours.”
A wine taster has helped him create a flavour profile of his seven varieties.
“We’re creating a unique experience and they’re buying the experience and not the poundage.”
Campbell has asked tasters and chefs to evaluate his Darwin variety before he starts selling it. It’s a culinary version of computer beta testers who check codes for flaws, and is a concept that comes easy to Campbell, considering he used to run an international beta team for Skype.
He said one such beta tester is Chris Shaften, a Calgary chef who co-owns Krafty Kitchen in Kelowna.
“He had his crew out in the midst of the garlic field before the scapes, the seed pods on top of the plant, were cut off, and discussing the best way to use them. Imagine the thrill of eating a 10,000 year old garlic and promoting it.”