Even with a foot of snow on the ground, industrious Ontario farmers can offer a taste of spring. How you ask? Rhubarb.
This “spring” vegetable (yes, we said vegetable) can be grown, harvested and eaten during the early, cold spring months.
Forced rhubarb farmers dig up older, nutrient-rich rhubarb roots from their outdoor fields near the end of October/early November and plant them inside a dark, heated barn. Nearing the end of the year, the heat in the barns is upped to about 10°C and large fans begin to circulate warm air. This tricks the plants into thinking it’s springtime! Only five weeks later and they’re ready to enjoy. Ontario grown rhubarb can be filling pies across the province as early as February.
Since these rhubarb plants are grown without sunlight, they’re more tender than their summer cousins. Forced rhubarb tastes sweeter than the outdoor summer stuff too. Without the sun to activate the chlorophyll in the plant, it doesn’t develop as much of the typical sour and bitter flavour rhubarb is known for. Even physically, the insides of winter rhubarb are more red than green.
In the 1960s, winter rhubarb was a common sight in grocery stores and markets across Canada. There were close to 60 producers in Ontario alone. However, as economic climates changed, heating a big barn during the winter became too expensive for many farmers. Coupled with a new influx of immigrants coming to Canada who were unfamiliar with the sweet-tart taste of rhubarb and the industry began to really suffer.
All is not lost though. Currently, there are only two forced rhubarb farmers in Ontario. They’re experienced enough to know not to grow too much until after Easter. As knowledge of local products and practices grows, they’re increasing their supply.
When the general public knows forced winter rhubarb is a thing, and it is, a thing; you’ll start seeing more of it on shelves. Who are we to restrict our access to rhubarb pie* (almost) for 10 months of the year? Seek out winter rhubarb in places like Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market, smaller grocers and local markets.
**When supplementing sweet winter rhubarb for the summer stuff, make sure to cut down on the added sugar!
WHO GROWS IT: LENNOX FARMS
Lennox Farm is a family-owned and operated farm, growing a variety of fresh, nutritious, and delicious produce. For five generations the French family dedicated themselves to growing only the finest fruits and vegetables.
Their main crops include Rhubarb, Peas and Brussel Sprouts. Lennox Farm’s crops are available at many grocery stores and farmer’s markets across Ontario. Restaurants and those in the foodservice industry can get it directly from our friends at 100KM Foods.