Photos by Steve Smith, VisionFire Studios
From clove to table, Kings Head Garlic is offering up something unique
Foodie friends Jo-Anne Russell and Cori Bennett got into the garlic-growing business on a bit of a whim.
Bennett was close to retiring from her lab job at the Aberdeen Hospital and Russell, a seamstress and occasional caterer, had acres of unused farmland on the family homestead at Kings Head overlooking the Northumberland Strait. They were both looking for something new and fun to do. Bennett came up with garlic.
Why garlic and not, say, turnip?
“Cori said there was nothing to it,” recalls Russell.
That hasn’t turned out to be the case.
But with the help of their tractor-driving and weed-pulling husbands and other family members and friends, the business, Kings Head Garlic, is thriving.
From an initial crop of a hundred disappointingly small bulbs four years ago, this year the harvest was around 18,000 large heads, roughly 2,500 pounds. They’ve expanded their kitchen to ramp up production of roasted garlic jellies and salsas and expect to have no trouble selling their crop of four different garlic varieties through word of mouth, Facebook and buyers like Stirling Farm Market, the Green Thumb and East Avenue Dining.
They grow the garlic without pesticides or herbicides, using sustainable farming techniques, unlike most of the product from China found on grocery store shelves.
“It’s a lot of work but it’s rewarding,” says Bennett.
Two new products are planned: a garlic spray to ward off the black-legged ticks that plague the Little Harbour area where the farm sits, and black garlic.
While popular for centuries in Asia, black garlic is little known in these parts. It’s made by heating whole cloves over the course of weeks until they caramelize, turning dark brown and sticky, with a softer, Balsamic-like flavour.
“The health benefits are beyond,” says Russell.
“And it’s delicious,” adds Bennett. “Chefs are crazy about it and have been approaching us.”
Such products take time to bring to market. Russell and Bennett worked with Rick Kane at Perennia, Nova Scotia’s food-focused development agency. After nearly four years, they’re ready to sell the product.
Kane, a food safety and regulatory specialist, is also helping them navigate the process to pass regulatory muster with their own version of a garlic solution to spray on properties.
“Even with Rick helping, it’s probably a three-year plan by the time you get through Health Canada,” says Bennett.
“We want to have it with no chemicals because we both love animals,” adds Russell.
If the product takes off, Russell has another 25 acres they can start farming.
Garlic scapes — the tender stems that turn to flowers if not picked — are a delicious by-product Russell and Bennett plan to start selling next year.
“People in the last couple of years didn’t know much about them, but this year we find more people are interested,” says Russell.
“There’s so much you can do with them,” adds Bennett. “My husband made garlic scape pickles. We’re going to make pesto. My favourite way to have them is in the air fryer with a little lemon, oil and salt and pepper.”
Grocery stores have asked about getting the garlic, jellies and salsas, but Kings Head doesn’t yet have the capacity.
“They would take 30 per cent,” says Bennett. “We’re just a small business starting out so we just sell directly to customers.”
They do envision producing enough for major grocery chains and even exports down the road. “That’s when we’d do more acres,” says Bennett.
At every step, the two “research the hell out of everything,” says Bennett.
That included a misfire when one guy they reached out to recommended amending the soil with Epsom salts. “I had my husband going everywhere looking for Epsom salts,” says Bennett. “That was the first year, when we had a terrible crop. We found out Epsom salts is not a good thing to put in. It was quite comical.”
The friends say working well together is the business’s secret sauce.
“Jo-Anne’s the math mind and I’m the idea girl,” says Bennett. “My brain doesn’t stop. At the beginning,
Jo-Anne said, ‘You’ve got to stop throwing ideas at me.’ I was putting her in a tailspin. Now I just keep quiet and write things down and when I know she can handle it, I’ll throw it at her.”
The pair is particularly busy leading up to the Christmas holidays, making jellies and salsas. After that they get some downtime until weeding season begins again in the spring.
They say the business would be nowhere without their family and friends, especially at harvest time in August and planting the next year’s crop in the fall before the ground freezes.
“My husband is one of our main weeders,” says Bennett. “He’s down on his hands and knees for hours picking out every little weed, even ones that are a quarter of an inch. We don’t have a weed in our garden. You have to be on top of it because, if not, the nutrients are going right to the weeds.”
They plant each clove of garlic by hand with a shovel but are hoping to get more efficient with a contraption Russell’s 81-year-old father is building to tow behind her husband’s tractor. It will cost a fraction of the likely $10,000 it would be for a new one.
“He built the thing with steel that goes underneath the soil and loosens everything,”
says Bennett. “We’ve been very lucky to have people on our side.”
They’re thinking of hiring next year.
“Right now, we’re depending on our friends and family,” says Bennett. “We give them gift certificates for jellies and salsas.”
“And we feed them,” says Russell.