Garlic’s apparent beneficial properties range from improved digestion, reduced inflammation and warding off colds. These and many other medicinal attributes were discovered long ago in central Asia and were documented in a Sanskrit manuscript from 350 – 375 AD.
Market tables heavy with thousands of braided strands of garlic are a certain sign that fall is approaching in Provence. Large, fresh, peppery cloves – nothing like Nutmeg had ever bought at the grocery store in Alberta. Or so she thought before she discovered Jackie Chalmers the owner and cultivator of New Oxley Garlic based in Claresholm, Alberta.
From cattle ranching to garlic production; it turns out that the story is about fresh Alberta garlic and homestead with a history. Jackie is passionate about garlic and Slow Food Southern Alberta an organization of which she is the president. The following are some details from Jackie on the historic ranch and her garlic.
The Oxley Ranche was formed in 1882; it was financed by a number of wealthy folks from the British Isles. John R. Craig was retained to manage it, he wrote an excellent book called Ranching with the Lords and Commons. At one time, the Oxley Ranche ran 3000 cattle, had a herd of several 100 horses. It covered approximately 200,000 acres; much of it leased for a penny an acre. Among the many challenges of managing one of Canada’s largest ranches was the funding was slow or non-existent from the overseas investors. From all accounts, Craig was a decent man, and it behooved him not to honour debts incurred. There was much hardship and even loss of life for many of the folks who did business with the Oxley Ranche due to the lack of cash flow from overseas.
The rebirth of the Oxley Ranche into the New Oxley Ranche Company (Canada) Limited happened in 1886 when Staveley Hill, one of the overseas investors “sold” the Oxley Ranche to this newly formed corporation. There was discord because Hill sold inventory to the corporation by book count and not actual count, he sold livestock and equipment that did not exist. Four short years after the inception of the Oxley Ranche it was renamed the New Oxley Ranche and relocated to its present location about ten miles downstream.
Much change has marked the century since the reorganization, but the ranch continues to provide excellent grazing land and native pasture for cattle and horses. Descendants of one of the owners of the New Oxley Ranche, the Leeds, continue to farm and ranch in the area. Willa Gordon and her daughter Jennifer White currently own the original Oxley Ranche location. The home we live in at New Oxley was built in the late 1800’s. Over the years, it has housed farm families and tenants. For a short time, when the structure was abandoned it even sheltered cattle and a bee colony. Needless to say, there was restoration work to be done before it could be fit for human use once again.
Early 1900’s saw many ranches diminish in size as folks with lesser financial means were attracted by the offers of great opportunity in the unsettled west. My family arrived in the Millarville area in 1905 and established a ranch. The winds of change blew strong in 2007 and with the passing of my parents so too did our ranching in that area.
In 2006, our family of four purchased the New Oxley Ranche, a much smaller holding than in 1886. We continue to pasture cattle, have a small herd of horses, two donkeys, some laying hens, a duck called Amy and our stalwart guardian dog, a Mareema named Harvey Milk. Garlic bulbs have replaced thousands of head of cattle. Our foray into garlic growing was somewhat serendipitous, we live on the nutrient rich flood plain of Willow Creek, and I wanted to try my hand at growing food on a larger scale. We share our piece of paradise with mule deer. I knew I needed to grow something that the deer would not bother. My sage Aunt Ruth told me she used to plant garlic between the rows in her garden, and it deterred the deer. After an initial test plot, I decided that garlic just may be a way to peacefully co-exist with my iconic and plentiful neighbours, after all they were here first.
Perhaps growing garlic on a larger scale may be one of the secrets to the fountain of youth. It is the hardest work I have ever done but because of its culinary and health properties I’ve never been healthier. We plant our thousands of plants in late September, each clove individually. This year we planted both a hard neck variety called Music and soft neck variety called Inchellium. They will peek through the ground early April, this is the only time the deer bother them because it is the first green of the season and the tops are very tender. Our garlic is grown without any chemical inputs, and all the weeding is done by hand. We have 18 rows, all the length of a football field. We fertilize with compost tea and do it a few times during the season, we also use cover crops and this year the whole patch was infused with nutrient rich flood water. Unfortunately in June 2013 we lost about 50% of our crop due to the extreme water levels, one of the disadvantages of living on a flood plain. However, we live by the farmer’s mantra, next year will be better.
Harvest takes place the first part of August. We loosen the bulbs with our plough and gather the plants onto a wagon. The plants are taken to a shed and bundled for drying. To bundle we gather about five or six plants per side, tie them at the top and place over a high tensile line in the curing shed. This is a three-sided shed protected from the sun with good natural ventilation. It generally takes about 3-4 weeks to cure the garlic.
Once the garlic is cured, we transport the bundles to the processing shed where we remove the tops and roots, and clean each bulb individually. Then the garlic is ready for sale. There are no short cuts, and the whole process is very labour intensive. The reward at the end of the season is the beautiful, delicious bulbs.
Jackie also shared a couple of her favourite recipes.
- 1-2 Garlic cloves
- 200g Feta cheese
- ½ cup Mayonnaise
- Mince garlic cloves
- Crumble and combine 200 grams of feta cheese (one small round either goat or cow) with the garlic
- Bind all with ¼ cup mayonnaise
- Season with freshly ground black pepper
- Serve with crackers, bread, and crudités
- Several Garlic bulbs
- Preheat oven to 350F
- Peel a number of garlic cloves
- Roast in a shallow pan with a little oil and water for 20 minutes or so until they are tender
- Puree them in a food processor and store in the refrigerator for a week or so
Photo Credits: New Oxley Garlic
New Oxley Garlic, Naturally! Is available seasonally ranch gate by chance or mail order, information can be found on their website. Also available on Foodie Pages or at Save-On, Urban Grocer, Umami and L.A. International Foods in Lethbridge and all Calgary Co-ops including Strathmore, Airdrie and High River.
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