Tuesday, 15 February 2011
A Visit to Janssen's Farm
We went down to visit my father this weekend, and on the way home we stopped at the Janssen farm, located between Simcoe and Delhi, to check out what they are up to this winter. They grow Belgian endive, amongst other things, and that's what's in full swing at the moment. They also have white asparagus, but that won't be available until May and June. Leasa Janssen, who gave us our tour, said that the thickest spears are the best, most tender spears to look for, in both green and white asparagus.
At one point they grew lettuce, but they have been unable to compete with lettuce from Quebec which is heavily subsidized by the Quebec government. (They figure it costs about $9 to produce a crate of lettuce, but the Quebec lettuce sells for $6.) Likewise, they had to give up growing green asparagus about 3 or 4 years ago, when they pulled out 10 acres of 5 year old roots. It cost more to produce it than they could sell it for. Like a lot of farmers I talk to, the Janssens love what they do, but are acutely aware that they are competing in a world where produce prices are distorted at every level; by foreign and domestic governments and by the distribution systems that act within those government frameworks.
Belgian endive is something of a niche crop though, and they supply nearly all the endive in Ontario, with some going as far as Montreal. There is another grower out west in B.C., and enough producers in the U.S. that they have not really been able to break into the American market.
The endives are grown in the fields behind this stack of crates in the summer; it takes all summer for them to mature. In the fall they are dug out and stored in the wooden crates you see stacked to the side.
The roots are stored, frozen, until they are wanted for forcing. Then they are packed into these sturdy wooden tables, and put into a dark room to grow.
Here are the stacks of endives in the growing room. They must be kept in the dark until harvested, and temperatures and water temperatures must be carefully monitored, to keep the heads free of bitterness and growing steadily. It takes about 3 weeks for the endive heads to become large enough to harvest. There is a control room behind the growing rooms, where the water input and temperatures are monitored.
Each head is carefully cut off from the root and trimmed. The Janssens are particular about which endives get packed - they must be the right size and shape, and free from any spots. They do sell some seconds, but most of the imperfect endives are discarded.
Some of the endives are packed loose in 10-lb boxes as they are cut. That's Peter Janssen in the front of the picture.
Others are bagged; the woman doing this operation moved quickly enough that although I took several pictures all I got was blurs. However, the endives are packed in bags that are then heat-sealed, and placed in cardboard boxes.
Meanwhile, when all the endive heads have been cut from a table the finished mat of tangled roots and discarded loose leaves are dumped into a grinder. The chopped-up remains are taken out to a field and composted. They could in theory be fed to cattle, but neither the Janssens or any of their neighbours are raising cattle at this time.
And finally, the packed endives as they will be seen in stores, unless you find them sold loose. That's how they are sold at my local store, and they are one of just a few really fresh, crunchy Ontario vegetables available right now and through the spring.
They can be cooked with rich complements such as stock, cream or cheese to counterbalance their slightly bitter, juicy qualities, or they are an excellent addition to salads of all kinds. They make great appetizers with some flavourful little tidbit served on individual endive leaves. I don't have a lot of recipes for them, but there are a few on the side panel. Please check them out!