Lorraine and Kevin Bannister just knew there was something different about the garlic they sampled at a farmers’ market in British Columbia one day 15 years ago.
“It was so different from the garlic we got in the store,” said Lorraine Bannister, who operates Garlic Goodness with husband Kevin near Innisfail.
“My mom was a really great cook, but she used garlic salt and garlic powder, so I thought having fresh garlic from the store was an improvement over that. But farm-grown garlic is just a different product altogether.
“We said, ‘Wow, we should be growing this.’”
And that’s just what the pair of cattle ranchers did.
After a half-dozen years of growing it for themselves, the couple decided to start selling their garlic as a retirement project once they got out of the commercial cattle business.
For the past seven years, garlic has been the flagship crop of their operation, which includes vegetables and just enough Highland cattle to eat the grass they have.
“There’s great demand for local, fresh, Alberta-grown produce, and garlic is one of those crops that grows really well here. That’s been our mainstay,” said Bannister. “We try to grow enough varieties that, whatever a person’s taste is, there’s something for everyone.”
Right now, the couple sells all their garlic, produce, and beef off the farm, and the demand from local buyers for their products — especially the garlic — just keeps increasing. In the last three years, the couple has oversold their crop and has had to sell their own seed stock to meet the demand.
“Our production has grown every year,” she said. “Every time someone new tastes it, we get new customers. So every year, we try and grow more, and every year, we wish we’d grown more.”
And not surprisingly, the pandemic only boosted sales further.
“I think the pandemic has people starting to think about supporting local and knowing where their food comes from,” said Bannister.
“People like to see it growing. They like to see the operation. It’s not that they’re skeptical — I think they just like to support the kind of practices that they value. They like to be part of it.”
The trend was already gathering steam, she said, “but the pandemic increased it and I don’t think we’re going back.”
On the Bannisters’ farm, all of the garlic is planted and picked by hand and also grown without any chemical inputs.
“We’re very conscious of things being grown naturally,” said Bannister. “When we moved here, there was nothing here. It was just a hayfield, so there were very few chemical inputs. We’ve maintained that.
“We want to keep the soil robust and healthy because I think it’s reflected in the taste.”
Despite the extra effort it takes to grow, the garlic performs very well in Alberta’s “tough conditions,” she added. The cold-tolerant hard-necked varieties they grow are seeded before the end of September and start to emerge in May. And it doesn’t take much space to grow a good garlic crop.
“I don’t even know how big the plot is,” Bannister said with a laugh. “That’s the thing with garlic — you can have a productive farm with a small number of acres. It is really different.
“This year, we’ll plant about 15,000 bulbs, but the amount of land and inputs it takes isn’t much.”
And while there is a bit of a learning curve to growing it, Bannister’s advice for anyone considering the crop is to just plunge in.
“It’s like any other type of gardening — the best way to learn about doing it is to just do it,” she said.
“There’s something great about growing things. There’s something kind of back to nature about farming, no matter what your scale.”