Garlic growers have no trouble selling crop

Mark and Brenda Visscher moved back to the central Alberta farm where Mark was raised and now have a market garden, specializing in garlic. They’ve sold out of the versatile cooking ingredient every year, even while continuously increasing the number of cloves that they plant. Social media, specifically Facebook, has helped to get the word out, and the demand continues to rise.  |  Maria Johnson photo

On the Farm: Alberta couple has increased what they plant every year since 2016 and social media takes care of the rest

JOFFRE, Alta. — In 2012, after years of living in Lacombe, Alta., and running several businesses, Mark and Brenda Visscher moved back to the farm where he was raised.

They live on 4 1/2 acres of land that has been subdivided from the original base where Mark’s parents operated a mixed farm starting in the mid-1960s.

They live in a renovated version of the same farmhouse. The house, the big red barn, a pump house and other outbuildings sit behind rows of mature trees that nearly hide the farm from the main road.

The first few years worked out for Mark and Brenda. They enjoyed the space and the slower pace of country living, but they wanted to make use of 2 1/2 acres of unused land, a former pasture.

“We had to pick something that worked with our schedules,” says Mark.

An online search of cash crops showed garlic as a top result. Being familiar with the versatile cooking ingredient and having grown it in their personal garden for years, they gave it a try.

Once the garlic is harvested it is hung from the rafters in the warm upper level of the barn, where it is left to cure for several weeks. Then comes the big jobs of cleaning the garlic and preparing it either for storage, sale or seeding. | Maria Johnson photo

“We started with 2,500 plants,” says Brenda.

“But when we first harvested it and saw how much there was we wondered, ‘how are we going to sell all this garlic?’”

Enter Facebook. Deep Roots Farm, the name a two-fold reference to product and a half century of family history, went online. Through social media and backed by the local food movement, that first crop sold out.

That was in 2016. Each year since the Visschers increased the number of cloves planted and each year the garlic has gone.

A recent inquiry from Cornerstone Co-op, a grocery store chain of seven stores in central Alberta, has resulted in a garlic deal for Deep Roots Farm.

Customers include a couple of restaurants in nearby Lacombe.

This fall’s planting of 30,000 cloves is double that of 2019. A long way from 2,500.

“People are realizing it’s important to know where their food comes from,” says Brenda.

Mark continues to work off the farm.

As well as growing several varieties of culinary hardneck garlic, there is also a market for seed stock.

“More people are growing gardens,” Brenda said, adding that it takes two to three years for newly acquired strains to acclimate and reach their full potential.

While garlic is Deep Roots Farm’s main crop the couple have added other vegetables.

So far that includes potatoes, beets, carrots, onions, shallots, and a variety of above-ground herbs and vegetables.

Mark and Brenda sell garlic scapes in mid-summer, the tender leafless stems that are removed to direct more energy to the bulb. They also make and market powdered garlic, pickled garlic, and garlic salt.

Then there’s the lesser known specialty, black garlic.

“The garlic is fermented for 192 hours,” says Brenda. “By then, it doesn’t really taste like garlic anymore. It gets sweet and chewy, like a Jujube.”

She said it’s tasty on its own or as a topping on pizza or steak.

Brenda says her customers come from throughout Alberta and they “come out and talk like they’ve known us all our lives.”

She attributes the friendly exchanges to the connections developed via social media. Brenda regularly shares photos and videos, inspiring gardening quotes, special sale dates, and recipes.

“It’s the personal stuff that draws the most attention.”

The Visschers’ alpacas provide fertilizer for the gardens. Brenda also uses shorn alpaca fibre to make dryer balls, mittens and blankets. Behind the alpacas can be seen an entrance to the chicken coop, which was built into the old pump house that’s been on the farm for years. Five chickens scratch about the yard and provide the couple with household eggs. | Maria Johnson photo

She mentions her post about the couple’s “sunset bench” located beneath a row of mature trees where she and Mark often sit to watch the sun go down. She’s also shared photos of the handful of chickens that strut about the place, as well as their three alpacas.

“It’s interesting what people respond to.”

Deep Roots Farm hosted its annual fall garlic sale in late September. The couple’s two grown children with their families including seven grandkids were on hand to help out.

“The 7, 8, and 9 year olds sold jokes to people for a dollar,” says Brenda, “…. and bouquets of flowers.”

Having the family pitch in is appreciated but it’s not an expectation.

The Visschers realize there’s a limit on how much expansion they can consider.

“We’re limited to what we’re capable of,” she says.

Garlic is a labour intensive crop.

“Someone said you’ll touch each plant 20 times, from planting to harvest,” says Mark.

The couple use mechanical assistance. A drum roller creates consistent seed spacing and planting depth. During harvest an undercutter lifts and loosens grown bulbs.

Then there’s the curing process. The garlic is hauled to the warm upper level of the barn, tied in bunches and hung to cure for several weeks.

“That’s when it’s the most impressive,” says Mark.

Once cured, the garlic is prepared either for storage, for sale, or for seeding.

“This barn used to be full of hay,” says Mark. “Now it’s full of garlic.”

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