Tuesday, 9 February 2010
Lennox Farm Rhubarb
Snowy, isn't it? It's the middle of winter; nothing is growing... outdoors. On Monday we headed out to Lennox Farm, just north of Shelburne to see what's growing indoors.
We walked past the farm house to some pretty standard-looking farm outbuildings. You wouldn't know you are looking at one of the biggest producers of forced winter rhubarb in Ontario. Not that there are many; there are only about 4 major producers nowadays. At the peak of the business back in the 1940's and 1950's, there were 63 big producers of forced rhubarb. Lennox farms was around then, and they are still here.
Inside, members of the French family pack the forced rhubarb into 10 pound boxes for shipping. The variety is Sutton Seedless, with the occasional bit of (Queen) Victoria mixed in. The two got mixed a few years back, and while they can tell the difference when they pick it, the roots are indistinguishable. There's very little difference; Victoria has a white petiole, and Suttons is pink. They are both fast-growing varieties that tend to be green when grown outdoors, but force to a lovely shade of pink.
Every year the French family plants 5 acres of rhubarb in the field. When it is 3 years old, the roots from 3 to 4 acres are harvested in the fall and moved, along with the muck that clings to them, to a cement-floored, windowless barn. There, they begin to grow in the dark. The remaining acre or so of rhubarb provides divisions to be replanted and keep the stock going, because once the roots have spent a winter producing stalks of rhubarb in the dark, they are done. The expended roots are taken out and plowed back into a field to compost.
You can see Mr. Ferdzy disappearing into a back room. Where's he going...?
...In here, where the rhubarb grows. This is a poor photo because the light was SO dim. The rhubarb grows in the dark, which keeps it tender, sweet and pink. The lights are only turned on for picking. You can see that plantings have been staggered, to keep the rhubarb in production all winter and spring. Lennox Farm grows rhubarb from early January through to mid-May. Then, they get another 6 weeks and 100,000 pounds of rhubarb from outdoor plants. That's over 6 months of the year that fresh rhubarb is available in Ontario!
Bill French harvests some rhubarb. It's not exactly a highly mechanized process... you bend over and pull gently and twist from the bottom of each stalk, picking stalks that are between 18" and 24". The rhubarb is harvested about once a week. Nowadays, the farm produces about 240,000 pounds of rhubarb a year, down from the peak average of about 800,000 pounds. Their record annual harvest was 1,200,000 pounds!
So what happened? In addition to a much wider range of imported fresh fruits and vegetables becoming available to Canadians in the winter, the 1970's brought "the oil crisis" and the much higher costs of heating the barns combined to put a lot of Ontario rhubarb farmers out of business.
The survivors have adapted. Heating costs are much lower now thanks to heat-exchange systems which suck out the moist, condensation-heavy air from the closed in barn, but keep the heat from being lost and return it to the growing room. This also means that the rhubarb requires no sprays while they grow. Before the heat-exchange system was available, the rhubarb had to be sprayed with Captan to control mold. Now however, just picking and discarding the stems that start to show signs of black does the trick. The plants are sprayed only once a year in the field with Roundup to control weeds, while the rhubarb is dormant.
Lennox Farms has the equipment to process rhubarb for freezing for use in bakeries. However, they now sell so little that way that they only run the equipment one day a year. It used to be a big part of the business. Now, essentially all the rhubarb used in commercial baking (and let's cut to the chase here; we are talking about pies) comes from Poland. That's right, Poland. Apparently it's cheaper to ship it by water to Nova Scotia, where it gets baked into pies by one of two big remaining commercial bakers. (Bill listed off about half a dozen large companies once in Ontario; no more.) Apparently it's not then too expensive to ship those pies all over Canada. Is this a crazy freakin' system or what? I admit to being shocked. And, if you are a bakery in southern Ontario and you want local rhubarb, Bill French is the guy to talk to. He can do it.
There's no website for Lennox Farms, but they can be reached at:
518024 County Rd 124
Shelburne, Ontario L0N 1S7
During the summer, they do have a farm stand where they sell rhubarb, strawberries, beans, peas, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and cabbage (all of which they grow) in season.
Otherwise, check your local store for fresh, forced Ontario rhubarb. If they don't have it, ask! It's available. Check the side listing for rhubarb recipes. There should be a fair number coming up in the next couple of weeks as well, because we were given a nice big box full of slightly blemished stalks as we left the farm.