More than just a festival
Local garlic growers believe the Stratford Kiwanis Garlic Festival has helped the local garlic industry comeback
A dying industry in Ontario just 15 years ago, garlic farming has experienced a resurgence over the past decade in the province, particularly in Perth County.
And for Warren Ham, a 30-year garlic producer whose farm is just north of Stratford, that local comeback is closely related to the creation of the Stratford Kiwanis Garlic Festival, which he helped co-found.
Back then, Ham said local producers were facing stiff competition from Asian producers who inundated the Canadian market with cheaper garlic.
In many cases, the competition made it hard for local producers to get their products sold in big chain supermarkets, forcing many of them out of business. In fact, Ham estimates that by 2000, the acres of farmland used to produce garlic in Ontario had declined significantly from 6,000 to just about 300 acres across the province.
The popularization of the “local food movement,” however, gave local farmers a second chance, and after visiting a garlic festival in Hudson Valley, N.Y., that attracted close to 20,000 people, Ham said he knew they had to do something similar in Perth County.
“Around 2003, the local food movement started to gain traction … and more and more people wanted to put a face on the producers who were growing their food for them,” he said. “So what the festival has done is exactly that, put a face on local food growers, and it has also allowed a means by which people who like local food and local garlic, they can connect directly with them.”
And while one of the main goals of the festival, which celebrated its 11th anniversary over the weekend, is to showcase local farmers, part of the proceeds of the event are also used by the local Kiwanis club to support its community programs throughout the year.
Bonnie Richardson, the festival’s chair, estimates the event attracts between 4,000 and 5,000 people each year, a number organizers were hoping to increase, as they implemented a number of new activities to draw new people to the festival.
Among those initiatives were tasting and pairing events, guest speakers who talked about everything from how to grow garlic to its use in certain dishes, and activities targeted to people of all ages.
“We wanted to make it a family-friendly event, so this year we have a children’s activities area with crafts, colouring, scavenger hunts and other activities,” she said.
“Stratford has also become a culinary hub, and we would like to be known as a piece of that.”
And in the case of Bob and Rose Geddes, who travelled all the way from Goderich and were at the festival for the first time, the festival is achieving just that.
“We are going to be exploring Stratford over the next two years, and we are going to come to the restaurants, and we thought we would start with the garlic festival,” he said.
Garlic producer Warren Ham, right, helps a customer at the Stratford Rotary Complex during this year's Stratford Kiwanis Garlic Festival.
Presenter Jackie Rowe, from the Garlic Box Company, talks to an audience during this year's Stratford Kiwanis Garlic Festival about the "sweet side of garlic." She was one of a number of guests speakers during the annual event that helps showcase area garlic growers.