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Alan Cowan raises garlic on his family's farm near Lake Huron, Ontario
Alan Cowan raises garlic on his family's farm near Lake Huron, Ontario

Alan Cowan on growing and selling garlic in Ontario

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Garlic is one of many crops that grow well in northern New York and much of Ontario. It's gaining in popularity thanks to various garlic festivals and a long-established reputation as a flavor enhancer with medicinal qualities.

Alan Cowan's family farm produces garlic, shallots and pumpkins in Ontario's Bruce County, near Lake Huron. For the last dozen years, he's been a vendor at the Perth Garlic Festival. That's a 7-hour-plus drive. But Cowan says it's worthwhile. He estimates 80 percent of his success depends on added-value marketing, which includes reaching customers who appreciate his product.

Cowan spoke with Lucy Martin this past weekend.

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A few of the ways he sells garlic

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Alan Cowan: People are very knowledgeable here, and they know their garlic. They know what they want and they don't mind paying for it. Where we live, it's meat and potatoes. And we don't sell a lot! But, it's sort of a holiday, too. We bring the whole family, make a fun weekend of it. And it's lucrative! Oh yeah, we do great!

A lot of the growers got frustrated and quit there, a few years ago. Because the prices were so low, they were bringing it in by China, by the boatload. But now, this 100-mile diet thing. Consumers love to buy local. They like to know the grower, they like to know where the farmer came from. So demand is up. There have been disease pressures too – the nematodes and that – there have been crop failures. So, supply is down and it's almost a seller's market, a perfect storm, really.

Lucy Martin: Do you have a favorite variety? For home gardeners in this area?

Alan Cowan: Yeah, I find the 'music' (a variety name) like Italian hard neck, to be healthier, and it's got bigger cloves, and it's milder. I think it's the best, all around. But, ultimately, it's the soil that gives it the flavor. Like, you could take five varieties and plant them the same field for five years and after five years, you probably couldn't tell the difference. They just adapt.

Lucy Martin: Really? Like they all merge together?

Alan Cowan: Yup.

Lucy Martin: Always an adventure!

Alan Cowan: Oh yes! And what works one year – like, don't get too cocky! You think you know everything and mother nature will throw something at you. Like, there's so many variables, because you plant it in the fall, and all the way through. Like I said, it's either too hot or too dry, or too wet or too cold, or whatever! And you dig it up and then it rains and there's fog, and it molds. It's character building! It's not for everybody.

A week ago I said “I'll never do this again!”. I was feeling kind of sick and down and the workers didn't show up, and it rained on this field of garlic. And the garlic festival was coming up, and I was overwhelmed. I said “Why bother?!”

But, a day like today, that's rewarding, so.

Lucy Martin: Your crop, that you brought today, looks beautiful.

Alan Cowan: Thank you! Yeah, it cleaned up pretty white. Yeah, so, hopefully we'll have a good day's selling. And more spreading the knowledge.

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