In the 1980s the UK fell in love with chicken kievs and garlic bread. Demand for garlic rocketed and Colin Boswell, a garlic and sweetcorn farmer who planted his first bulb on the Isle of Wight in 1976, was perfectly placed to cash in. Which he did.
By the 1990s, Boswell had secured 70% of the market, supplying Tesco, Waitrose and M&S with garlic and doing similar numbers in sweetcorn. Sales accelerated to £10m. Then, in 1999, the wheels fell off.
Faced with an aphid infestation that threatened to ruin a sweetcorn harvest, Boswell used an unapproved pesticide to save it. He was fined £220,000.
The aftermath saw Boswell sell the supply business to Peter Barfoot (“for not very much”) and start again, growing garlic on a more modest scale while wife Jenny started bubbling chutney away “on the Aga at home.”
Fast-forward to 2014, and Boswell’s farm has evolved into a bona fide tourist destination. The Garlic Farm features a shop, restaurant, tasting centre, holiday cottages, tractor rides and farm walks and it’s popular - 170,000 visitors pour in for free every year and leave laden with jars of chutney and fresh garlic to grow at home. Trade is bustling; sales are about £3m a year.
Since Jenny Boswell perfected the first jar of ‘Vampire’s Revenge’ chutney in 2001, the range of The Garlic Farm products has steadily grown to more than 50 lines, including chutneys, oils, curry pastes and pesto. Production is outsourced to manufacturing plants around the UK and around 10% of products are sold online while the shop moves 40% and the remainder is sold wholesale. “It’s our biggest avenue and there is lots of room to grow. We supply 1,000 delis and farm shops and export to Denmark, Sweden and Russia. We are exploring all avenues.”
For the time being, those avenues don’t include supermarkets. “Tesco was a cutthroat business and we would rather deal with smaller customers. Supermarkets do approach us, and it’s not that we wouldn’t reconsider, we sell to local co-ops, Budgens and a Waitrose, but supermarkets require very high volumes for their margins to work, so we need to be ready.”
The bestselling product remains simple garlic. “Go to any allotment in the UK and 70% of the garlic is from our seed.”
And it’s increasingly popular across the channel. “They are sceptical about the chutney, but in France they are very regional when it comes to fresh produce. Garlic from outside the region is tricky to get. So we sell a lot to amateur gardeners who want varieties from around the world.”
Boswell, who claims to eat garlic every day, is particularly excited by a new strain from Ukraine, which is “beautiful, hot and fierce.” He is also proud of his “elephant garlic,” though it’s technically an “overextended leek with garlic tendencies.” It’s unquestionably big, however, a bulb is eight inches wide and weighs 600g.
In total he grows 12 varieties, using glasshouses and polytunnels to recreate a “Mediterranean” atmosphere. “Our way is more expensive than using gas driers, but it’s difficult to distinguish whether our garlic is grown here or in the south of France.”
It’s this level of quality control that makes it baffling to Boswell why the supermarkets settle for “terrible quality garlic from Spain, or China. They just look at the price per tonne and the customer ends up with small bulbs. Having said that, if the supermarkets were good at selling quality garlic, there wouldn’t be an opening for us.”
Today he produces 150 tonnes of garlic every year, much of it grown from neighbouring fields to ensure fertile soil and meet demand. Indeed, the original site has become “more country park than production site”.
Boswell estimates that he’s spent in the region of £600,000 on it since 1999, transforming it from “a pack house with a production line” to something “dynamic and exciting.”
“We didn’t have a lovely brand then; we weren’t in control of our own destiny,” he recalls. “It has been wonderful to grow this part of the business. Having customers come in and see how we have developed, they engage with us so much, and they love what we do. I’ve got no regrets. Besides, if you dwell too much on the past you never go forward.”