Fresh. Dehydrated. Preserved. That’s garlic and what Jackie Rowe hopes will be a year-round story.
What’s not widely known is that Canadian garlic season starts in mid-June in the form of scapes, the gnarly loops of flower stalks. They must be hand snapped so that the hardneck garlic plant directs its energy into a plumper bulb.
Rather than waste the greens, Jim and Jackie Rowe started a pilot project last year, selling almost 4,000 bundles of the novel, in-season ingredient to a handful of Metro stores and the independent stores of FarmBoy and Remark. Garlic scapes can be sourced in small quantities at farmers’ markets, but the gamble was to take the delicacy mainstream.
“They’re a tangled mess,” admits Jackie Rowe, owner of The Garlic Box, Hensall, Ontario. “They are coiled like a snake. But the nutritional benefits and multiple product uses for garlic scapes make them a specialty for grocers looking to offer farmgate freshness.”
Retailed at $2.99 for a bundle of eight garlic scapes, the 2017 package involved hand harvesting, cooling immediately out of the field and tying an educational label to the bunch. Advice to the consumer? To maximize the flavour and quality of garlic scapes once home, bundle them in a paper towel and then refrigerate in a perforated zip lock bag. While garlic scapes are harvested during a two-week window, one advantage is their long shelf life of three to four weeks.
The pilot results were mixed. Metro stores did not witness the anticipated turnover, despite tags that explained how to use scapes in omelettes and salads. However, Farm Boy stores and Remark Farms -- an independent with a store in London and Windsor -- sold out.
That’s a telling lesson for growers about the complexity and fragmentation of produce retailing today. Smaller chains that cater to savvy food shoppers at higher price points offer the demographics for specialty, in-season produce. Farm Boy, for example, which started in eastern Ontario and recently opened its 25th store in Etobicoke, targets the “foodie” buyer with local products. That’s exactly how they compete with big-chain formats such as Loblaw which does 55 per cent of its national business in Ontario.
If it wasn’t for the Rowe’s 10-year relationship with Farm Boy, selling garlicky sauces and seasonings, they wouldn’t have had entry to the fresh market.
“I must confess that it’s a struggling conversation,” says Rowe. “We were introduced to the produce buyer at Metro at an OMAFRA Meet the Buyers event, but it’s a lot of tiers from the bottom up.”
What she has learned over the years is to offer a solution to retailers: “We want to be your year-round garlic supplier.”
To make that statement credible, the Rowe’s have established a network of growers and processors to deliver product. Last year, they partnered with nearby farmers Martin and Teresa Van Raay and their sons Dean and Phil who fall planted 35 acres and spring planted 15 acres of garlic at Dashwood, Ontario. They have invested heavily in building a drying and storage facility with peeling, dehydrating, sorting and packing capabilities. Bagging capacity is up to 15,000 pounds per week in a variety of formats: 115 gram bags, one-pound and two-pound bags.
“It’s been a learning curve” admits Martin Van Raay, a pig and cash crop farmer, “to build a food-safety-certified facility.”
The Van Raay family’s entry to the garlic business coincided with Ontario’s announcement of minimum wages rising from $11.60 to $14 per hour within the span of a few months. While they have a mechanical trimmer for the bulb ends – surprise! – not all garlic bulbs are perfect and therefore need to be hand trimmed of their roots. Unlike their other farming enterprises, garlic requires intense spurts of manual labour.
“We may need up to 40 people for a week to remove the scapes,” says Van Raay. Labour requirements vary from week to week.
“The Van Raay’s new facility is a huge commitment to the garlic industry,” says Rowe. With about 1,000 acres of garlic in the province, there’s now an outlet to process garlic into different formats. Another processor, Southcoast IQF, based in Delhi, Ontario, offers capacity to freeze garlic cloves along with other vegetables. Brandneu Foods, situated in Cobourg, Ontario, processes baby kale chips including a special grinder that’s ideal for garlic.
This delicate eco-system is now being challenged by Ontario’s overhaul of employment standards and minimum wage rates.
“We’re going to work tight and lean,” vows Rowe. “The cost of labour is pushing us towards a mechanized process being tested this year. Rising labour costs and falling food prices is the environment that Ontario’s garlic industry is struggling with as we try to develop this category. Testing equipment will bridge us until we get a solid indicator of the market trajectory for scapes which have historically been identified as a niche market item.”
By mid-August, Ontario’s garlic festivals will be boasting of braids of locally grown bulbs. To move beyond this artisanal fare, Ontario’s garlic growers are working to be more of a collective so that they have bargaining power with large supermarkets.
“The Garlic Box is trying to gain a commitment from the larger chains to help build sustainability in the industry which is needed to foster growth,” says Rowe. “But it is easier to forge a relationship with the independents who are more willing to establish partnerships and transfer that transparency to their dedicated customer base.”
The Rowe’s have been in the garlic business since 1998, winning awards for their inventive garlic products. For all that, Jackie Rowe has a laser focus, concluding: "In the long run, the fresh market is where sustainability lies.”