When Saskatchewan grain and oilseed producers Dave and Krista McBain started looking for a specialty crop to supplement their farm income, they decided to head off the beaten path.
The McBains pulled together 35 pounds of seed garlic and planted their first commercial-scale garlic crop in the spring of 1996.
They harvested more than 100 pounds of fresh raw garlic that fall and since then they’ve been exploring the commercial frontiers of garlic, going boldly where few Saskatchewan farmers have gone before.
“We went to a herb and spice meeting in Tisdale (Sask.), back in the 1990s with a fellow named Leroy Bader,” said Dave, who farms with his wife, Krista, on eight quarters of land near White Fox, Sask., about 250 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon.
“Initially we looked at echinacea, but it seemed like everyone was getting into echinacea at the time….
“That’s when Leroy asked us if we’d ever considered growing garlic.”
Today, with 20 years of experience, the McBains are among the largest garlic growers in the province.
M & M Garlic, the company they formed, produces hundreds of pounds of fresh garlic annually.
The family owned company also grows carrots, beans and other fresh vegetables, which are processed and pickled using the fresh home-grown garlic that M & M has become known for.
Dave and Krista now produce 18 different products including pickled garlic asparagus, pickled carrots, pickled beans, garlic salsa, garlic powder, and, of course, fresh raw garlic.
Processing takes place in the company’s recently constructed storage and processing facility, which includes a commercial-scale kitchen, where M & M products are processed, jarred and stored before being shipped to markets.
Dave and Krista admitted that growing and processing garlic is labour intensive.
They harvest late in the fall, after the garlic plants have had time to dry down.
Harvested bulbs are allowed to cure and harden before processing.
Even a task as basic as removing the paper from harvested bulbs and cloves takes an enormous amount of perseverance and elbow grease.
Because the crop is not commonly grown in Saskatchewan, sourcing and acquiring specialized processing equipment can be difficult and expensive.
Over the years, Dave and Krista have developed their own processing methods, using equipment that’s available and affordable.
Marketing has also been a challenge.
The McBains faced a steep learning curve when they first entered the market in the mid-1990s, hoping to sell their entire crop as whole garlic.
“We thought we’d sell it as raw garlic but (a grocery store) manager set me straight,“ said Krista.
“He said, ‘I can buy garlic from China for $2.50 a pound. Why would I buy it from you for $5 a pound?’ ”
That’s when the McBains began to take a serious look at processing.
They started by producing garlic powder and later branched out into pickling.
With the help of the Food Development Centre at the University of Saskatchewan, the McBains settled on a few recipes and decided to set up their own processing facility, just a stone’s throw from their family home near White Fox.
Over the years, the ability to adapt and respond to new market opportunities has been critically important to M & M’s success.
According to the couple, there were two watershed moments that convinced the McBains that there was a profitable market for grown-in-Saskatchewan garlic.
One was the couple’s decision to exhibit their products at the SunDog Arts and Entertainment Faire, held annually in Saskatoon.
Initially, the McBains were exhibiting M & M products through small local markets and in a few selected retail outlets, mostly in northeastern Saskatchewan.
The floodgates opened when M & M Garlic made its Sundog debut in 2002.
Potential buyers were lined up at the M & M display and Dave and Krista were run off their feet selling jar after jar of their unique products to eager garlic consumers.
Another milestone moment occurred when a prominent Canadian TV news program ran an exposé on the practices used to grow Chinese garlic.
According to the program, Chinese garlic producers routinely used raw sewage as a primary water source for their garlic crops.
Not long after that, the demand for fresh, locally grown Canadian garlic surged.
As they expanded their garlic business, the McBains continued to grow more common agricultural crops.
Canola, wheat and timothy are mainstays on the McBain farm.
Garlic production requires more labour and effort, but it is a rewarding experience.
“I think we’ve done pretty well,” said Krista, when asked about the success of the venture.
The McBains are also planning ahead, anticipating the day when they quit the garlic business and reduce their workload.
“We’re looking at our options,” said Dave.
In the meantime, M & M Garlic continues to build its reputation and expand its markets.
For more on M & M Garlic, visit www.mmgarlic.com.