Garlic growers smell future expansion

People in the garlic industry predict a strong season ahead.

“It’s probably 30 percent higher in the province from last year to this year,” said Paul Smith of Northern Equipment Solutions, an equipment dealer near Barrie, Ont., that sells garlic equipment.

Many expect the crop in Ontario, where most of the country’s garlic is grown, to surpass the 1,000 acres.

Jackie Rowe, whose Hensall, Ont., processing company the Garlic Box, uses Canadian-grown garlic in preserves, dressings and seasonings, calls it a critical year.

“I think we’re positioned that we can start to meet the demand that has been stimulated by the local movement, because the grocery stores are responding. They’re looking to purchase local.”

Today’s optimism is a big change for an industry that nearly disappeared 17 years ago when garlic imports from China flooded the domestic market and drove down prices.

Warren Ham, who farms near Stratford, Ont., had built his crop up to 100 acres by 2000. He recalled how bad weather compounded the disaster caused by the incoming Chinese product.

“A lot of people went bankrupt and companies went under.”

Ham refocused on selling to niche markets. As the local food movement grew, so too did his production.

Today, his 50 acres of garlic ends up in the produce section of retail stores and as seed. Garlic is cloned rather than grown from seeds; the cloves are used for seeding. Lately, he’s been selling “an inordinate amount of seed” to growers in Ontario and farther afield, to such places as Alberta.

Ham and others talk about existing garlic growers boosting acres and the entry of larger vegetable growers into the industry. They also describe a large-scale effort to establish soft-neck garlic in Ontario — the same type that’s grown in China and in the United States.

If successful, the introduction of soft-neck garlic could become a game changer, driving down prices for locally produced garlic that now fetch $5 per pound for wholesale and up to $8 per lb. sold on the farm.

That’s because soft-neck garlic is cheaper to grow. It takes four months to mature compared to the full year taken by the hard-necked garlic that is the current Canadian standard.

Moreover, soft-necked garlic bulbs contain many layers of cloves. Hard-necked garlic averages five or six cloves. The soft-necked garlic’s larger volume of cloves creates a savings for growers because they don’t have to save as many bulbs for planting.

However, garlic growers in Canada say the hard-necked variety is better suited to Canadian climate and is of better quality.

It’s unsurprising that garlic production generates interest among growers.

“The demand for garlic consumption is continually rising; people see the health benefits; they like to cook with it,” said Mark Wales, president of the Ontario Garlic Growers Association. He estimates 15,000 to 20,000 acres of production might address demand in Ontario.

But it would take a lot more to serve the entire country.

“The Chinese alone still continue to ship about 20 million lb. a year into Canada.”

Ham said the realities of production soon cool enthusiasm, especially if growers become ambitious and plant too much too quickly.

“They grow five acres and then the scapes (curly shoots that appear in the late spring) come and they say, what do you do with these things?”

Scapes must be cut by hand to direct growth back to the bulbs.

Since the 2000s, disease and pests, such as bulb and stem nematode, have been among the biggest threats to domestic garlic production.

At one point, three-quarters of the farms in Ontario had nematodes, said Wales.

Lack of agronomic information makes solutions difficult.

Growers have introduced a clean seed program to try to reduce incidences of disease and the spread of the nematodes. The program has involved testing and screening bulbs for diseases such as onion yellow dwarf virus and leek yellow strip virus and then reproducing clean bulbs in a greenhouse environment.

Bulbs are then planted in fields isolated from other production and where soil is tested for the nematodes and harvested and planted over several generations before being harvested for commercial use.

In Saskatchewan, at Darrel and Anna Schaab’s Yorkton-area farm, fusarium has been the big hurdle.

After a search for a fungicide didn’t turn up anything effective, the Schaabs opted to change field practices.

They reduced tillage and introduced cover crops to foster soil health and provide weed control.

It’s too early to tell if the approach is working. They’ve had good crops since, “but so have all the other guys too,” Darrel Schaab said.

The challenges don’t stop after garlic is out of the ground. The crop has to be cleaned and dried for fresh market sale, or must undergo further preparation, such as peeling or dehydration for processing.

At the Schaabs’ farm, the practice of hanging garlic in an open-faced shed to dry created a lot of work during the busy harvest and resulted in problems with mould. So they erected buildings with aeration fans to cure the garlic.

“We have one building where it goes straight into from the field and straight air goes onto it,” Schaab said.

To prepare it for sale, he transfers the garlic for one night to another building where fans blow warm air. And then, the roots and stems have to come off by hand.

Growers said it’s important to find a market before deciding on whether to pursue the crop. Rowe and her husband, Jim, had intended selling fresh market garlic, but in the late 1990s with prices so cheap and the local food movement not “even a flicker in anybody’s eye,” it wasn’t viable. So they processed it.

“When we did that, we were able to get a buyer,” she said.

The Rowes annually average 200,000 units that include the Garlic Box’s line of products, as well as private-label and food service orders. This year, they are preparing to ship fresh garlic to retail outlets for the first time. To do so, the Rowes are working with a number of growers, such as their neigh-bours, Martin and Teresa Van Raay, who grow 35 acres of garlic.

To ensure their future competitiveness, the Van Raays recently bought a four-row planter and a four-row harvester. Both pieces of equipment “will seem massive to the people who have been growing garlic for 10 years,” said Martin Van Ray.

He doubts the overall industry’s expansion in acreage will be rapid, pointing to the need to hold back such a large proportion of acreage to produce crops for the following year.

Yet others don’t rule out the possibility of garlic, including the hard-necked variety, eventually making the transition to commodity production in Canada.

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