Mennonite: the back story

How did we ever get into growing garlic? Like many gardeners, Jean, (my mum) and I, (Elly), we try new things, garlic was one of them. Our garlicky interest quickly developed into a love once we found out the pure pleasure of achieving quality and flavour. Jean was given a few bulbs by our neighbours to grow in our small market garden in the early 1990’s. Shortly after, we found some really awesome varieties at local farmers markets and later discovered that there were festivals that were actually dedicated to all things garlic! Jean was especially excited to learn that garlic can grow bigger than what she was accustomed to growing in her garden. Around that time there was this rumour going around that Ontario could grow ‘good’ garlic. This was the impetus to achieve that same standard of quality and volume since we were going to grow garlic for our market customers. By 2003, we turned it into a side business. Back then, Railway Creek Farm was the first to grow over 15,000 with the largest selection in Hasting County. 16 years later, there are now many more growers making local garlic available to eager shoppers.

Over the years we collected a nice diversity of garlic varieties and strains. Each year we decide what to keep by evaluating each garlic by its flavor, growing habit, disease resistance, storage longevity and popularity. We have chosen the best to sell commercially and we have more than 20 kinds including those still in trials . We like to take our time to test each new strain for 3 years before we offer it to our customers. We grow six varieties; these are porcelain, purple stripes, glazed purple stripes, marbled purple stripes, creoles and rocambole. A commercial favourite is the Mennonite porcelain and here is its story. 

In 1996, Mum was given a couple of porcelain garlic bulbs at the Madoc Fair. This generous gardener thought we might be interested in this particular garlic as it was large, tasty, very attractive and had a very high sugar content. Did this porcelain garlic have a name? No, he only knew that it came from Mennonite brothers by the name of Bass and they were farming in Wellesley, Waterloo county in Ontario. Many Mennonites who settled in that region were of German and Russian descent. However, Mennonites who migrated from Pennsylvania were of Swiss descent and could have brought garlic with them from the old country or picked it up as they moved around. We don’t really know. Today, what is important is how nice this garlic grows on our farm and how much customers like to grow it and cook with it too.

So to fill in this no-name blank, we simply called it Mennonite to remember where it came from, never thinking it was going to become its official name and gain so much popularity. In the first few years, we gradually increased production by saving a good quarter of each harvest to replant. That is a lot of seed stock! Through an accidental discovery in our early years, we found that by tossing the clipped immature scapes into the pathways doesn’t mean that the scape’s life has ended. No, it continues to mature even after it is severed from the plant’s stem and will eventually replant themselves with hundreds of tiny bulbils. What a mess, but what a discovery of mass reproductive potential! We replanted the bulbils and discovered that it takes approximately 4 years to grow garlic to a decent size by replanting it every year. 17 years later and we are still using the bulbil method in every garlic strain we grow to increase planting stock. 

Under perfect conditions, and during a perfect summer, the Mennonite bulbs are 2.5 inches across on average, juicy, hot and garlicky. It usually has 4 to 5 easy to peel cloves, sometimes 3 or 6, it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to do, but regardless all the cloves are large. I tested it on a brix meter and it reads over 40% which means that growing it here on our sandy loam soil it is maximizing the highest percentage of sugar, mineral and protein to achieve that nice flavor. However, I am still learning about Brix meters and how to interpret this information. The growing advantage of this garlic is that it seems to be more resistant to fusarium fungal disease than some others pests. To grow garlic good garlic, lots of good compost, sunlight and water. Some mulch for the winter is helpful and of course some weeding. However, leek moth and weather conditions have been a bit of a problem for us lately. 2016 gave us a nasty drought to deal with, then too much rain in the following years.

Railway Creek Farm has been producing garlic and various other veggies for over 25 years, and of course garlic is still the favourite vegetable to craft a sale pitch to eager growers. We attended Garlic Festivals every year since 2003. RCF picks out different local food shows each year in Hastings County to promote the consumption and growing of garlic. Please seeevents 2019. I package and sell garlic for our local Foodland grocery store, several veggie road side stands north of Belleville and of course we sell it from the farm. In 2012, I developed this website to show case the varieties and blog about the farm. And for those who like to shop at home, we have the online catalogue! Click here to see the Catalogue

We grow only a small amount between 15,000 and 25,000 bulbs per year. All this garlic fits in about half an acre. The garlic is planted 3 rows 8 inches apart and 5 inches between cloves in raised beds. Having access to both cattle and horse manure has been a huge beneficial factor in healthy growth and large size. I spend 4-5 days laying drip irrigation lines. This is a must on our sandy loam soil to ensure that adequate moisture is available. We have a 5 year rotation plan and the 5- 1/2 acre plots are situated in various high and dry places within a hay field. The land is never bare, I use a combination of clover, buckwheat, fall rye, oats, peas, sorghum and brassicas to keep the soil alive and healthy. The harvesting time in late July is intense and demanding. I rely on a couple of summer students as well as volunteers and neighbours. Once the garlic is out of the ground and cleaned up a bit, it is hung in a well ventilated place to cure for 3-4 weeks. After curing, the next tasks are; clipping stems, brushing off of loose dirt, grading and inspecting the garlic for imperfections and sorting before packaging and selling. This all takes a tremendous amount of time, patience and a keen eye for quality. Garlic Festivals in Ontario are early and it’s a challenge to be ready for them on time with a good quantity, quality and nicely packaged garlic. 

Railway Creek Farm answers many calls about how to grow and market garlic. My first advice to any one wanting to try growing it, is to have a market ready for the cropbeforeyou plant, and grow small amounts and build up volume slowly over several years. My last word of advice is to know your pricing, consider the work involved and don’t sell cheap. You must pay yourself, your staff and all the expenses that are incurred with the production.

As long as Railway Creek Farm continues to grow garlic, there will always be Mennonite garlic to buy. You can also try German White, Armenian, Romanian, Kazakhstan from our selection of porcelains. We carry a large choice in the rocamboles including my favourite Korean, Railway Creek and Russian. We are offering new ones like Purple Stripes, Glazed Purple Stripes and Creoles.