When it comes to garlic, most of us are used to the mildly flavoured white bulbs that are readily available in major grocery stores.

But if you’ve bought fresh seasonal garlic at a farmer’s market or through an organic produce delivery service like SPUD, perhaps you’ve seen heartier purplish-skinned garlic with a hard stick coming up the middle of the bulb.

Many varieties of that “hardneck” garlic grow well here in Alberta, and thanks to growers like New Oxley Garlic in Claresholm, more and more of it is popping up in markets and stores.

When New Oxley’s Jacqueline Chalmers and her family moved from Millarville to Claresholm in 2006, she planted a garden for herself, but was dismayed to find that her veggies were being snapped up by local mule deer before she had a chance to harvest them.

Every step requires hand labour… each bulb has been handled seven or eight times. There’s no mechanization involved at any step

Coming from an agrarian family, Chalmers called her aunt for advice and learned that the deer were not fans of garlic bulbs. Chalmers planted a few to see how they’d grow and her entrepreneurial spirit soon kicked in.

In 2010 she harvested her first commercial crop, and by the next year she was growing thousands of bulbs of garlic to supply to various retailers around the province.

Chalmers says that garlic used to be a more popular crop in Alberta in decades past, but the industry was eventually squeezed out by the increased availability of cheaper softneck garlic from California or China. While hardneck is gaining in popularity thanks to the local and organic food movements, most consumers don’t realize that our local garlic is incredibly labour-intensive to grow.

“Hardneck garlic can grow well here — it likes the sunshine and needs the cold to vernalize [and form cloves],” Chalmers says. “But it’s not an easy crop to grow because every step involves hand labour. By the time a bulb gets to the grocery store or farmer’s market it’s been handled seven or eight times. There’s no mechanization involved at any step along the way.”

This, coupled with the fact that local garlic is a seasonal product, means that Alberta hardneck garlic is more expensive than the softneck stuff, but it’s also more flavourful. New Oxley only produces two kinds of garlic — music and red Russian — but there are many other hardneck varieties for growers and consumers to experiment with.

Another challenge that has plagued New Oxley and other growers over the last few years is Alberta’s increasingly erratic weather. For the past two years Chalmers’ crop has been all but destroyed by unpredictable weather patterns: in 2017 early thaws turned her garlic into mush, and last year after planting in the spring, a lack of cold evenings left her garlic un-vernalized, making it only suitable for food processors who don’t mind working with large balls of garlic rather than neatly divided cloves.

This winter’s mild weather and strong winds have left her garlic without a protective layer of snow, which has Chalmers worried, but she won’t know its fate until she can more carefully inspect it in the spring and then finally harvest it in August. Despite the uncertainty, Chalmers is able to keep New Oxley afloat thanks to relationships she’s formed with smaller garlic producers in the province.

“Because I was one of the first to start doing it commercially again, I became known as the Garlic Queen and have had people coming to me wanting to grow their own crops, and also asking if I can sell their garlic,” she says. “So I have two or three growers under my umbrella. It keeps us out there and keeps us available for the people who love our garlic.”

While New Oxley was selling its garlic at major grocery stores in Calgary, Chalmers has scaled down in recent years to keep the business more manageable. Her garlic is sold via mail order at newoxleygarlic.com and locally in Claresholm, which eliminates the need for her to personally drive into Calgary or Lethbridge to made deliveries.

Seeing more and more local garlic on the market has been very rewarding for her. While her place in the local market is smaller than it once was, she thinks Alberta garlic is an industry with a lot of potential to grow, and that there’s always room for more local producers.

“I believe most people do this because they love it, and from my personal perspective it has been one of the most fun and rewarding things I’ve ever done,” she says. “I have met amazing people and I have learned so much. It’s been a very fulfilling endeavour in spite of the challenges.”

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