Michelle Rajotte is on a mission to make leeks as familiar as broccoli to North American consumers.
Les Cultures de Chez Nous, based in St. Brigitte des Saults in Central Quebec, harvests 6.5 million leeks a year, making it Canada’s largest producer and the leading supplier of asparagus and leeks to Montreal supermarkets and restaurants.
The family-owned operation recently won Quebec’s annual Prix Desjardins Entrepreneurs in the agriculture category.
Rajotte said the outdoor harvest finished around Nov. 20, but production continues indoors in cold chambers until February, when Les Cultures will begin importing the long onion-garlic cousin from Europe for processing until the 2014 harvest begins next July.
“In the past we tried U.S. and Mexican leeks but there wasn’t enough white part on the leek and not enough volume,” she said, adding that she recently found some nice U.S. leeks she’s seriously considering.
Whole leeks still make up 80% of Les Culture’s sales, with sliced leeks (white part only) the remaining 20%. But Rajotte said publicity in magazines and TV and an attractive new package and logo have helped increase sliced sales by 50% this year.
The package retails at major Quebec supermarkets between $2.99 and $3.49.
A lively Facebook page and a bilingual website (www.completementpoireau.com), complete with contests, beautifully photographed recipes and nutrition advice, have also contributed to higher sales, she said.
“We created it all to publicize the leek and to teach consumers how to cook them and what to do with them,” she said. “They’re not just for soup!”
Rajotte and her husband Louis-Marie Jutras began growing leeks in 1983. It’s now a family affair, with the couple’s three children, spouses and cousins all involved.
“When we started, my goal was to increase leek consumption to the level of broccoli,” Rajotte said.
“There’s still much to do, and we’re still far from the consumption in France,” she said, “but it’s coming along.”