Jackie Chalmers of New Oxley Garlic, Naturally! has been making a name for herself in the specialty health food and garlic industry for much of the past decade. When Chalmers started out her farming operation, garlic had been a declining crop in Alberta for decades, and there were virtually no larger scale commercial growers of the plant left in the province. Chalmers rode the garlic health food trend to prominence back then, and she has maintained her reputation as one of the province’s premium growers ever since.
“I started growing garlic commercially eight years ago,” recalls Chalmers. “I was talking to my Aunt Ruth, who was a farmer west of High River, and I said what can I grow the mule deer won’t bother? She said garlic. So I did a test plot the first year, and I grew 50 bulbs, and the deer didn’t bother them. The following year I went up to 5,000. And it just went from there. It is really fun to grow. I will plant 10,000 bulbs in the spring, but I have been as high as 24,000.”
Chalmers grows a “hardneck” variety of garlic, which is different than most other commercially produced “shortneck” varieties. Chalmers describes the taste difference between the two.
“The hardneck is full-flavoured,” says Chalmers. “The bulbs are plump and solid. The flavour is also so distinctive. You can’t compare it to other types of garlic you might find in store. The garlic provided by California or Mexico is all softnecks, and that gives them a different flavour from mine. I always tell people my garlic is stronger, and when you start using it, don’t think you have to throw in three or four cloves because it is very full-flavoured.”
Chalmers sales strategy mostly relies on word-of-mouth, the Internet and direct marketing to specialty stores and individual customers to stay profitable.
“I do a lot of mail order,” she explains. “I have customers now I have had for eight years. I was selling wholesale into grocery stores, but I am not sure I will continue to do that because the margins are just too small. So I am going to put more emphasis on my mail order and individual sales.
“I also have a wonderful, little store in Claresholm that takes all of my garlic and provides it to people in the community.”
Chalmers is always looking for other ways to improve her profit margins without compromising quality.
“I am looking to do more value-added this year because a local business has approached me that wants to use local garlic in their product,” Chalmers explains. “We are just exploring the possibility of being able to provide the quantity they want so that it is economical for them and profitable for us. If you have a good product like we do, you are always going to find a way to sell it.”
Unlike most southern Alberta crops, garlic quality depends on a cold winter for ideal growth and development, says Chalmers.
“Generally we would plant the end of September or early October. Then it has a chance to settle in and maybe grow a few roots. In an ideal situation, it will stay frozen all winter after that. It does need to be frozen, and that is the vernalization many bulbs need in order to produce properly. They come up generally the first part of April, and we generally harvest the first part of August.”
The last few winters have been a challenge to Chalmers as the mild temperatures have made for inconsistent freezing and thawing of the ground, which has damaged her crop quality. Chalmers has implemented a solution to this problem for this year’s winter.
“I made the executive decision this fall that it was too dry to plant,” she says. “I have put all my bulbs in a freezer, and come spring I will take them out and plant them. I am going to make the assumption that they are frozen more consistently in my freezer than in a freeze and thaw cycle in the ground.”
Quality is key to New Oxley Garlic, Naturally; so the investment in a commercial freezer is a worthwhile investment, says Chalmers.
“We are so particular about what we take to market because I don’t want a bulb not to be perfect,” she states. “It does take extra time, but I think in the long-term it is well worth the effort.”