Sometimes, seemingly random events and experiences lead a person to their destiny. Hardy Johnson, half of a the two-man team behind the Southwestern Ontario’s John Beer Garlic Co., has done many things in his life so far, and, while not always a straight line, it has all led him to meaningful work… in the middle of a garlic field.
After studying human kinetics at university, Johnson instead spent 15 years working first on an aquaculture farm and then a mid-sized pedigreed, non-GMO soybean farm. Having learned much from his innovative and entrepreneurial employers, he wanted to try his hand at farming to feed people.
Like many new farmers, Hardy Johnson had been looking for a way to start a farm of his own. The cost of entry for farming can be prohibitive, with Southwestern Ontario arable farmland selling for as much as $25,000 an acre, and that’s before seed, equipment and labour. Not to be deterred, Johnson did what many other young farmers are doing across the province. He rented an acre of unplanted land – a horse pasture, in fact - from a family farm to start a small garlic farm.
“I want to have an offering people can actually consume and that will impact their lives positively. I really enjoy growing things – I’m not a true farmer, more like a hired man without my own land mass. I’m growing on a small scale, worming my way in, renting a spare piece of ground. The dream would be to someday own my own farm and not be scrounging around for little pieces here and there. I have to work my way in there somewhere, and this works for me for now.”
Hardy and his partner, JaysonBeer, have been friends since the first day of highschool. They had long talked about finding a project they could work on together. After many false starts and abandoned concepts, they attended a course on garlic farming at Guelph University. There, among many older couples looking at getting into garlic as a hobby, the idea of the John Beere Garlic Co. was born. Hardy takes care of production on the farm, and Jayson provides an equal share of the labour and the land connection.
Named for Jayson’s grandfather, John Beer, the original farm was still in the family, and the old horse pasture was available. It had great soil for garlic, a nice sandy loam. Now, with their first harvest under their belt (brought in by both partners and their families), the venture is showing early signs of success. “I’m making a decent living. It’s the right thing to do. It’s maybe a little weird to say, but it’s also entertaining. I definitely enjoy the whole process. I would never say that the crop is my child, but it’s kind of like that. When I drive by a field and see that the crop is suffering, I just feel bad. It’s just part of me, I guess.”
Once covering over 4,000 acres in Ontario, garlic farms were decimated in the 90s by an influx of low-priced garlic from China, which reduced the Ontario crop to just 400 acres. Following a decade of trade tariffs and a renewed interest in the crop, garlic is making gains in the province, with strong support from both farmers and hobbyists. “It’s a very interesting plant – the whole life cycle.” says Johnson. “The potential to have two harvests every year – scapes and bulbs. If you don’t harvest the scape, it becomes a flower. If you let the scape finish, it becomes bubils or seeds, roughly 100 per plant. The self-seeding capacity is unique and amazing. If you harvested the bulbils (these are micro, undivided bulbs housed within the neck of the garlic scape) when they’re ready, you’d have seed forever – just extraordinary propagation potential. It’s a really cool plant. I love the cycle of how it all works.”
Most of the garlic grown in Ontario is hardneck garlic, which produces the beautiful curled green scapes you may have seen sold in bunches at local farmer’s markets in late June and early July. The scapes are the edible flower stalk of the garlic plant. They grow straight out of the garlic bulb, and have a long green appearance not unlike large, curled bean. The whole scape is edible, even the seeds, with a mild garlickly-onion-scallion flavour and an asparagus-like texture. They absorb and complement flavour well, and are prized for pickling, roasting and sauteeing.
This year’s John Beer scape harvest was sold at local farmers markets by Hardy, his wife Cori and young daughter. Word clearly got out fast though, with a single buyer arriving at the farm with a team of workers to both harvest and purchase the rest of their scape crop in a single day.
The John Beer Garlic Company grows Music, part of the porcelain variety of garlic, considered to have the best genetics for the Southwestern Ontario region south of London. “In time, it will have taken just 10 pounds to seed the entire farm. I’m the caretaker of these 10 pounds, and I could potentially hand this seed stock down to our children. We’re going to plant everything we grew this year into two acres - or as far as it goes – ramping up our seed stock. Five acres is the goal for us to grow to. Realistically, we’d love to add two to three acres of garlic each year. Jayson and I have talked about how we’d like to someday process our own garlic products – garlic pastes, pesto, smoked garlic and black garlic. I myself have fallen victim to paying $5 for a bulb of smoked garlic. It was worth it, because it was delicious. I’d like to do that every day.”
Pickling is a great way to preserve the abundance of a garlic scape harvest. Pickled scapes are a little like beans, but with a beautiful crunch.
Safe, clean canning materials.
Bring your water bath canner to a boil.
Clean and trim your scapes, cutting away the tough bottoms. Remove any blossoms and save (you can add these to a salad or stir-fry – they’re edible too!).
Gently curl, and pack trimmed scapes sideways into your jar, pushing them gently to fill in the bottom of the jar. Add 1 tsp dill and ½ tsp peppercorn, coriander seed and chili flakes to each jar.
Add water, apple cider vinegar and kosher salt to a pot and bring to a full boil, stirring to incorporate the salt.
Pour the boiled mixture (this is a vinegar brine!) over your jarred scapes, filling the mason jars and leaving ½ inch of clearance at the top.
Use 2-part canning lids to seal, then process in your water bath canner.
While it takes about two weeks to infuse the scapes with flavour, waiting at least six weeks is well worth your patience!