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Is there a ‘stalk’ market in rhubarb?

Research at Portage la Prairie explores potential for commercial production of rhubarb

My parents had a rhubarb patch they harvested for years and years. A sturdy crown divided off it still grows full bore in my backyard. Just how long can rhubarb last?

A much bigger patch being established at the Agriculture Canada station (formerly the Central Manitoba Crop Diversification Centre) at Portage la Prairie this summer might provide some answers.

It’s a new rhubarb variety trial undertaken by Manitoba Agriculture’s fruit specialist Anthony Mintenko for the Prairie Fruit Growers Association. He planted it last year and will begin this year evaluating yield and winter hardiness of four varieties.

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Isn’t rhubarb just plain old rhubarb, you might ask? And if it has been there since grandparents planted it, isn’t that sign enough of being hardy?

But that’s backyard rhubarb. Mintenko’s research will help better understand the differences between varieties to help commercial growers decide if they should grow it on a larger scale. People still like rhubarb, says Mintenko. But with fewer people having their own little patch of it nowadays, commercial growers are asking if there’s an opportunity to grow some for them.

“When we were kids everyone had rhubarb in their yard,” he said. “I don’t think that’s the case anymore.”

Mintenko has planted four varieties in the trial, including Sutton, a green-stalked variety, plus Canada Red, MacDonald, Honey Red and German Wine. There are distinct differences between them all for eating quality and uses. Generally, the deeper the red colour, the sweeter the rhubarb will be. Green-stalked rhubarb, for example, is quite sour and yet very good for jams and jellies, while the redder varieties are best suited for fruit salads, tarts or pies.

He’ll start to gather data on the plants as they mature. The plants were started in 2015 so it’s a couple of years yet before he can tell us more about which varieties best suit Manitoba conditions.

It was a trip to a fruit growers’ conference in Minnesota awhile back that got him thinking about this, says the fruit specialist. There it’s already grown commercially and is now a must-have at farmers’ markets and a popular item in box-to-your-door deliveries of farm-grown product. The state’s Department of Agriculture even publishes a directory listing locations of farms growing it with Google Maps to find them.

Meanwhile, we’re discovering all sorts of new ways to consume rhubarb beyond pie and jam. Living Sky Winery in Saskatchewan produces a commercial rhubarb wine and a rhubarb cider. This spring, Halifax brewer Garrison Brewing put out a call for rhubarb announcing plans to launch a “rhubeer.” Creative cooks and food bloggers are always posting ideas for eating rhubarb, from salsas and sauces, to even roasting, grilling and drying it. Who knows? Maybe rhubarb’s next for a vault to superfood stardom, like once lowly kale and cauliflower.

I forgot to ask if the Portage research will eventually need help taste testing these new varieties. I’ll volunteer, maybe not for the raw stuff, but definitely if pie’s involved.


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Rhubarb Streusel Squares

I made this for dessert over the May long weekend. It is excellent and if it lasts around your house longer than a couple of days, it sets very nicely in the pan, lifting out into neat little squares.

Crust:

  • 1 c. all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 c. sifted icing sugar
  • 1/3 c. butter

In a medium bowl combine flour and icing sugar. Using a pastry blender or fork, cut in butter until crumbly. Press into bottom of an ungreased 9-inch square baking pan. Bake at 350 F for 15 minutes.

Filling:

  • 1 c. granulated sugar
  • 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 2 eggs slightly beaten
  • 3 c. sliced fresh or frozen rhubarb

In a medium bowl combine all filling ingredients. Blend well. Pour over partially baked crust.

Topping:

  • 3/4 c. all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 c. granulated sugar
  • 1/4 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/3 c. butter

In a medium bowl combine first three ingredients. Using a pastry blender or fork cut in butter until crumbly. Pour topping over filling. Bake at 350 F for 45 to 55 minutes or until topping is light golden brown and rhubarb is tender.

Rhubarb Honey Bran Muffins

  • 1-1/2 c. whole wheat flour
  • 3/4 c. wheat bran
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 c. canola oil
  • 1/2 c. honey
  • 1/2 c. milk
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 3/4 c. applesauce unsweetened
  • 1-1/2 c. rhubarb diced (fresh or frozen)
  • Preheat oven to 375 F. Lightly spray canola oil cooking spray on non-stick muffin pans. In large bowl, mix together flour, bran, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. In a second bowl, mix together egg, canola oil, honey, milk, vanilla and applesauce. Add wet mixture to dry mixture and stir until just combined. Add rhubarb and gently fold into mixture. Spoon into prepared muffin pan(s). Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until tops are firm to touch.

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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