Individually Quick Frozen
Using a process called IQF, Jackie Rowe is winning awards for her frozen garlic and hoping it will transform a beleaguered garlic industry
By Lisa B. Pot
Riding the local food movement while embracing new technology has created a product that earned Jackie Rowe a substantial award and could rejuvenate a struggling garlic industry.
The Garlic Box in Hensall is the first business in Canada to apply the Individually Quick Frozen (IQF) process to garlic cloves. The concept caught the eye of the Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Agri-Food Innovation Excellence program, presenting Jackie with the Leader’s Award. Its accompanying $25,000 prize was welcome but Jackie is more excited that IQF could prove highly profitable for garlic producers, long beleaguered by the invasion of cheap but potentially compromised garlic from China.
Using a state-of-the-art facility in Delhi which freezes Ontario fruit and vegetables, Rowe’s garlic is first peeled, flash frozen in 12 seconds, then packaged into a resealable bag. This means Ontario garlic in all its nutritional superiority is available year round, rather than being relegated to a seasonal offering.
“Being able to IQF garlic allows farmers to consider there are market opportunities for Ontario garlic year round,” explains Jackie from her well-lit office in The Garlic Box’s Hensall location facing Highway 4. If you didn’t know from the earthy smell of garlic lingering in the air, the huge print of garlic bulbs hanging in Jackie’s office will tell you this woman is focused on garlic – how to eat it, market it, and revive it.
In the decade between 1995 and 2005, the production of Ontario garlic declined from 4.5 million pounds to 1.8 million pounds. In that time, 4,000 acres of land dedicated to garlic fell to about 400 acres. Chinese garlic had taken over.
Selling at $3 a pound compared to Ontario’s $8 per pound garlic, the imported garlic was appealing to consumers less focussed on the benefit of buying local and more concerned about cost. Plus, it could be imported all year long while Ontario’s harvested garlic bulbs could not last the winter.
Technology and consumer attitudes are changing and Jackie says the time has come to fight back.
“You have to have a compelling point to engage the consumer and IQF is it,” says Jackie. “It’s convenient, has a good price point, there’s no waste and its nutritious.”
Also, a premium field-to-freezer price for IQF garlic means farmers growing the bulbs could sell an extra 20 per cent of their yeld at a premium, potentially earning them an additional $4,500 yield per acre.
IQF represents a solution to the perpetual problem of how to meet the demand for Ontario garlic 12 months of the year. Seasonal garlic sells well but like most vegetables, fresh garlic doesn’t store for 12 months. IQF bridges the gap by freezing the garlic in a process that retains the garlic’s nutritional qualities.
Jackie explains that garlic has a high-glycemic core, which means it never completely freezes in a regular freezer. Traditional freeze methods cannot core-freeze whole cloves fast enough to stop cellular wall damage and the formation of ice crystals. This affects the texture, colour, taste and quality. During the IQF process, the cloves are placed on a vibrating conveyor system which wicks moisture away from the cloves as they travel into a blast freeze tunnel for a rapid surface freeze. This is followed instantly by a rapid core freeze. When they come out of the tunnel, they are solid white and rock hard. They tumble into 300 gram zip-lock freezer pouches ready for sale.
It’s a brilliant concept. Open your freezer and pull out a locally-grown, ready to slice or mince, frozen-like-fresh, no-peeling-necessary-clove – much easier than peeling a tiny, dried out garlic clove from China. The problem is consumers just don’t know that frozen garlic is available.
“It’s really brand new,” says Jackie. The Garlic Box is the first business in Canada to adopt the IQF process and sell the cloves through grocery stores, restaurants and food service businesses. It’s just becoming available in local stores.
Jackie is up to the task because she’s been convincing consumers to choose Ontario garlic over American and Chinese imports for 17 years since The Garlic Box first opened its doors.
At the time her husband Jim was a farmer and worked for equipment dealerships while Jackie dabbled in many careers. She had detasselled corn as a child in Chatham, grew up to be a mom and cook, became a writer for the Owen Sound Sun Times and was working as an interior decorator, when she and Jim partnered with a neighbour who had grown an acre of garlic. Once fresh sales were done, the rest was replanted into seven acres and suddenly, the Rowes had a mountain of garlic and no market to sell it.
“In 1997, there was no equipment, no tools and no infrastructure for garlic,” remembers Jackie. Jim used his skills to develop machinery to plant and harvest garlic while Jackie combined her eclectic skills to develop, process and market garlic in value-added products such as seasonings, sauces and dressings, preserves, condiments and soups.
A bestseller is the Ultimate Garlic Steak Splash, which vies for top spot with perennial favourite ‘Garlic Mashed Potato Seasoning’. The garlic seasoning sold out at Christmas time.
“Customers were telling me they couldn’t make their traditional garlic potatoes without it. So we developed more and paid for the shipping so they’d have it in time for the holidays,” says Jackie, herself a cook. Her goal in creating the seasoning years ago was to “take the humble potato and elevate it to something you would serve with a prime rib dinner.”
Garlic is a surprisingly delicious companion to many foods, including peaches. When I pull a face at the thought, Jackie bids me taste a spoonful of the Peach Salsa with Ontario garlic. It’s all fresh, hot, sweet and salty at the same time. Delicious.
Customers think so too. Total units sold in the 2001-2002 fiscal year were 26,000. In 2012-2013, that rose to 138,000 units, effectively increasing production by approximately 80 percent.
The Garlic Box has become Ontario’s largest processor of garlic, processing approximately 50,000 pounds of garlic per year.
Part of that is due to Jackie’s enthusiasm for marketing. She loves garlic and promotes it on her two websites (one business focused, one recipe based). She also writes a newsletter with a 1,700 member circulation, does taste tests at trade shows and engages audiences at speaking engagements.
Ontario garlic is just plain good, she says. Jackie’s growers plant ‘Music’, a hard-necked variety which originated in Russia. It’s conducive to cold climates. It’s a large bulb, with six cloves compared to the smaller, soft-necked, Chinese garlic, which can have up to 20 small cloves per bulb. Ontario garlic also produces scapes, making it a root-to-leaf eating crop. Garlic scapes are used for stir-frys, value-added oils and dressings because they are just as highly nutritious as the bulbs.
Ontario bulbs are soil bound in our country’s relatively virgin soils for 10 months, compared to Chinese varieties which grow in as few as four months in soils that have been cultivated for thousands of years. As it grows, Ontario garlic absorbs nutrients from deep in the soil, contributing to what Jackie describes as a “complex heat” that begins as a white burn across the tip of the tongue before heating the whole mouth with a rich flavour that could be characterized as nutty with a bit of a mineral finish.
She could be describing a glass of wine but with Jackie, it’s garlic. Always garlic.
She particularly enjoys her connection with local chefs. Each month she teams up with a chef from places like Benmiller Inn and Eddingtons to Exeter to create and share a new garlic recipe on her website.
Taste is a huge draw for consumers but ease of use and availability also factor in and that’s where IQF stands poised to transform the Ontario garlic industry from a niche product to a viable opportunity for farmers looking to grow alternative crops.
“There was no path to take, we had to blaze it.”
Value-added products have kept The Garlic Box in the game. Now with IQF, Jackie believes Ontario can become a viable player in the garlic industry.
She’s thrilled to be in the thick of it.
“Garlic has everything we want – it’s healthy, it has flavour and it has the potential to fuel our economy. I know this is where I need to be,” says Jackie. “We’ve worked 17 years overcoming challenges to get Ontario garlic to the marketplace and this award is a great milestone not just for us, but for the industry.”
Chinese garlic will continue to flood in at a cheaper price point but Jackie isn’t abandoning her goal to revitalize the Ontario garlic industry. The award money helps. It’s being used to pay farmers for product and renovate the garlic processing facility in Hensall.
Plus, Jackie has plans to develop a new Caesar salad dressing, to explore the greenhouse grower market and, of course, to ride the trajectory of IQF garlic cloves as far as it will take her.◊