Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum), aka ‘pie plant’, was once a staple in Ontario homes and gardens since Colonial Times. Most everyone had a plant or two just outside the back door, or in a nearby garden. However -presently, and in Canada, there is a mere and meager per capita consumption of 0.1 lb! ...and down 88% from its ‘heyday’ during the 1920’s, 30’s, and 40’s. Therefore, there is likely some opportunity for enterprising growers to take advantage of this low rate of consumer consumption, here in Canada.
Rhubarb is native to southern Siberia, and the ancient Chinese used it as a medicinal herb over 5000 years ago. For centuries, it was traded alongside tea as a cure for stomach aches and fevers. The English were the first to eat rhubarb, beginning in the late 17th century, but unfortunately chose to begin with the leaves that looked like chard. The leaves, however, contain toxic amounts of oxalic acid and are poisonous. The ensuing cramps, nausea and, sometimes death, from ingestion, ‘suppressed’ interest in the plant for about 200 years! But by the late 18th century, Europeans had discovered that the tart stalks were the part to eat perfect for ‘tarts’ ...giving rise to the nickname ‘pie plant’.
Bill and Diane French, and now with son, Brian, are continuing a 120-year old tradition, of rhubarb production on the family farm (Lennox Farms) in Melancthon, Ontario (halfway between Orangeville and Collingwood). Supplying about 80% of the Ontario market with rhubarb, they are the largest grower in Canada with about 90 acres in production, and among the top producers in all of North America. Rhubarb was initially established on the French farm as a forcing crop. In earlier years, fresh produce could only be had seasonally -and, therefore, forced rhubarb was considered to be a welcome ‘treat’ in the dead of winter.
Although there are many rhubarb varieties to consider, the French family after many years of trial, have selected Victoria, Sutton Seedless, and German Wine, as ‘tried-and-true’, to their needs. In the beginning (on the French family farm), rhubarb was mainly produced for forcing, then expanded into processing (pie-fill, jams and preserves), and then of course, for the fresh-market supplying the larger urban centres. In early years, nearly everyone had a few plants to supply their domestic needs, however, with apartment-style living, etc., where gardens are no longer possible, for most people.
Now, the bulk of rhubarb production (60-70%) on the French farm is destined for the fresh-market, and the French family have their own stall at the Toronto Food Terminal. In addition, they sell through Bayshore Shippers of Burlington, whereby many stores are supplied with a 1-pound pack, usually containing 8 stems on a tray, all wrapped in cellophane. German Wine is the main variety used for fresh-market production, as it yields well, and has both good external and internal red colour, extending half-way to two-thirds into the interior of the stem (botanically, the leaf stem is known as a petiole, just as is the celery stalk). This variety is somewhat less ‘stringy’, has good flavour and not as tart as some others. And as is usually the case, fresh-market sales have a higher profit margin than that for processing.
While harvest will begin mid to late May, the main harvest is in June and continues into the first week of July. Approximately, 80% of the stems of the crop are harvested, giving yields of 8,000-10,000 lbs/acre. The crop will produce for a duration of about 12-15 years, but harvest is only in alternate years ...allowing for the crop to ‘rest’, in the ‘off’ years. If it is a wet year, and rainfall is regular, harvest can continue for the entire growing season, as the crop will continue to produce leaves.
Rhubarb juice is a newer product line these past 3-4 years for the French family, and about 40,000 lbs is pressed every season. The juice is used in alcoholic beverages such as rhubarb-apple cider, and also sold fresh to wineries. Among other products for sale on the home farm, the French family mixes rhubarb juice with cane sugar, and makes for a very refreshing summer drink!
Winter-forcing of rhubarb spreads out the production season. Crowns that are 2 years of age are lifted from the field and put into forcing sheds in the fall of the year (older crowns are too big and heavy to move about efficiently). Each shed is designed to hold 5,000 crowns packed tightly together and can yield between 8,000-10,00 lbs. However, since rhubarb is a perennial crop, it requires a minimum of 50 days at 5°C (cold temperature requirement) to break its winter dormancy. Once in the forcing shed, and to maintain the best colour, plants are kept in total darkness, and grown (forced) at 10°C. A heat exchanger is used to reduce humidity.
Earlier forcings can take up to 8 weeks to get a crop, while later season forcings can be cropped in 3 weeks.
Apart from the rhubarb foliage -which is toxic, nothing is wasted. Even the pulp left-over from pressing, is dried and made into flour ...albeit, still in the experimental stages. Rhubarb flour has the advantage of being gluten free, with potentially many uses.
As a matter of interest, the village of Shedden (west of St. Thomas) has being hosting the annual Rosy Rhubarb Festival for the last 30 years -featuring rhubarb (of course), and always during the weekend of June just prior to Father’s Day. While you may have missed it this year, mark your calendars, for next! Truly, rhubarb is a plant and pie, for every season -and, for every reason!