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Lots of growth at Van Raay Farms Ltd.’s garlic growing operation

Updated: Jun 26

‘There’s always something we can improve; we can always do something better.’


Man standing in front of Garlic Bins
Dean Van Raay with Van Raay Farms Ltd. said their current cold storage can hold 300,000 pounds of garlic, but they’re hoping to build a new, larger facility soon.

One of the things that Dean Van Raay appreciates the most about farming is its dynamic nature. “You’re always learning. It’s not cookie cutter. There’s always something we can improve; we can always do something better.” 


Van Raay grew up on the family farm, Van Raay Farms Ltd., helmed by his parents, Martin and Teresa, just outside of Grand Bend.


Besides raising hogs, the farm also grows cash crops – wheat, corn and soybeans. The whole farm is about 600 acres. “In the cash crop world, that’s fairly small,” Van Raay said. 


While he worked a few years off farm in construction, an off-season slowdown saw him return home and to his roots – quite literally. 


With Van Raay’s brother, Phil, helming the hog raising side of the operation, the family had to decide how they would grow the farm together – whether they would buy or rent more land to expand their existing operations, or if they would try growing a higher value crop on the land they already had. 


They decided to go for the latter, and in 2014, they planted their first garlic crop on two acres, which they harvested the following year. 

Garlic, Van Raay explained, is a very labour-intensive crop. Initially, the family was doing the bulk of the work by hand, but soon decided they wanted to invest in the operation – which was also automatically a decision to expand.


“If you’re going to buy all this equipment, you’d better put in enough acres to justify buying the equipment,” Van Raay said. “We’ve been slowly growing since then. This year, we have 80 acres to harvest.” 


He added with a smile, “It was supposed to be a little side business, and then it slowly turned into my full-time job over the years.”


Each day brings new tasks and challenges, Van Raay said. 

“One day, I’ll be the tractor operator, one day I’ll be the irrigation guy, one day I’m the trimmer working in the plant … it’s a good variety,” he said. 


In many ways, the garlic growing industry in Canada is in its infancy. 


Around the year 2000, the market was flooded with imports, which caused the prices to drop drastically; many Canadian producers got out of growing garlic at the time. 

“We’ve slowly been building it back up,” Van Raay said. 


Over the past decade, he said, the family farm’s garlic growing operation has done their best to lean into the concept of ‘work smarter, not harder.’ 


“There’s a lot of room for innovation; there’s a lot of processes that we’ve improved,” he said. “We’ve learned a lot. We’re still learning at lot about growing a better crop, a healthier crop, a cleaner crop … It has been fun, don’t get me wrong; it’s just been a pretty steep learning curve.”


Tweaking their process has been an ongoing necessity. 

“There really hasn’t been a year where we’ve gone, ‘We have everything; we’re done, let’s just run this out.’ There’s always something more (to do),” Van Raay said.

One of the things they’ve been actively working on improving is lengthening the storage time of the garlic. 


Right now, they start to plant around September or October. Van Raay said runs a similar cycle to wheat in that it gets planted in the fall, sleeps through the winter and wakes up in spring. The research being done now is showing that when it goes in earlier, the plants end up doing better. The garlic is generally ready to harvest starting in July.


Improvements to the cold storage facility could possibly stretch the garlic’s post-harvest life out longer; the Van Raays are also working on making sure their crop has the best start. 

“A healthier crop coming out of the field will store better, which will lengthen the season and provide a better start to the next season,” Van Raay said.  


That’s why the Garlic Growers Association of Ontario is a valuable organization to belong to. The association runs the Garlic Clean Seed Program, where members are able to purchase roundels, or clean seeds, on a yearly basis that were produced through the University of Guelph’s Ontario Crops Research Centre in New Liskeard. 


“We’ve been growing out the clean seed to have healthier seed – disease free, virus free seed. And hopefully that will help increase our yield,” Van Raay said. 

Not only that, but the association is a great way for garlic growers to connect with each other, share knowledge and tips, find out what’s working and what’s not, and sometimes find partners to more effectively get their garlic to market. 


When the Van Raays decided to increase their number of acres planted early on in their garlic growing journey, they also had to start processing their own crop for market. 


Van Raay explained that they went from having around 8,000 pounds to process to having over 250,000 pounds over the course of just a few years. 


“There was nobody able or willing to take our garlic at that point, because there was too much for them to add to their operation,” he said. 


By getting their garlic ready for market themselves, they’ve now been able to partner with a number of smaller garlic growers to assist in their processing as well.  “I’ve got a couple of growers that bring garlic to me; they started off with a one or two acre plot, and now they grow upwards of 20 acres … that’s exciting for me, watching somebody grow a new business,” Van Raay said.


When the garlic comes in, it’s brushed, sized, and put into storage for a few weeks to cure it. After that, it’s brought back out and the roots are trimmed; it’s also brushed and inspected again. At that point, it’s either put back into storage for later sale, or it gets processed to ship out for fresh market. 


The Van Raays have invested in a lot of equipment on the processing side of their operation; these include an optical sorter, which gives them a 360 degree view of each bulb to help with sorting and picking out any defective ones, as well as an automatic bagger to help get the garlic processed faster for market. 


Garlic growers and those who are considering getting into it will have an opportunity to see the Van Raay’s set up at the Garlic Growers Association of Ontario’s 2024 Field Day event on June 1. 


This is the second time the farm is serving as the venue for this annual gathering; the last time was when the Van Raay’s garlic growing operation was just a few years old. 


“We were still fairly new to the industry; we (just) had the foundation for the new shed up at that point … anybody that’s been to the last field day, the place looks a whole lot different than it did then,” Van Raay said. 


Besides seeing firsthand how one of the province’s larger garlic growing operations is run, both in the fields and processing plant, guests to the event will be able to see equipment displays from Ontario vendors, as well as attend various information sessions to learn more about garlic, growing the crop, the industry, etc. 


Van Raay noted that the Field Day events – like the association itself – “(Is) supposed to be for everybody, from the small acre grower – somebody that’s just trying to learn how to grow garlic – to the large producers.”


While there is a set schedule of events for the day, there’s also “a lot of tailgate conversations that goes on, what’s working for one grower to the other,” Van Raay said. 


That spirit of collaboration is one of the things he appreciates about the local garlic industry, Van Raay said. While sometimes producers can be hesitant to share their trade secrets if they find a clearer route to success, Van Raay said that’s less of a concern with garlic, because there’s so much opportunity in the market right now for Canadian growers. 


“We are proud that all of our crop is sold in Canada, and we are looking forward to being able to supply further into the year,” he said, adding that there is room for the Ontario garlic industry to grow, due to consumer demand for high-quality Ontario garlic. 


For more information on the association, or to register for Field Day, visit garlicgrowersofontario.com, or email garlicgrowersofontario@gmail.com. 

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