Tatamagouche teens literally build their business from ground up

At a recent early-morning breakfast meeting, three Tatamagouche brothers signed off on the 2024 business plan for their venture and then bolted out the door to catch a bus … a big yellow one taking them to junior high.

Alexander Cook, 13, and his twin brothers, Dyllan and Oliver, 12, may be several years away from encountering the word “entrepreneur” on a spelling test, but in the community where they are known as the Garlic Boys, they are living up to the definition.

Under the guidance of their parents, Percy and Kate, the trio has turned a COVID inspired agricultural lark into a business that requires their involvement in everything from planting and product development to marketing and sales.

“This is not three kids sitting on the front lawn selling lemonade that their Mama made in the kitchen,’’ says Percy, who’s a dad first, but business manager a close second. “This is a real opportunity to get them to understand how a business works, how to talk to adults, to practise looking people in the eye, and the importance of using time wisely.”

The boys play pickleball, golf, soccer, and are available for pickup games of baseball with their friends after school, but when they agreed to be featured on three roadside billboards around central Nova Scotia promoting the garlic business, they also agreed to give up most weekends for planting, harvesting and sales.

In the first year when COVID gave them “way too much time on their hands,” the clan planted 27,000 bulbs in the corner of a 40-acre property at Bayhead, near Malagash. Schoolmates, drawn in by the novelty, helped get the initial crop into the soil, but the first harsh business lesson came with harvest.

“Garlic may be pretty easy to grow, which makes it ideal for the boys, but 27,000 bulbs was way too much work for a family of five. We couldn’t store it all,” says Kate, the production manager who chops, minces and dries a portion of the crop when she’s not working her day job as a dental hygienist.

Garlic is planted in the fall, covered in straw, and rests through the winter. Weeding is required in the spring as green shoots grow taller than the boys. By early August, the zesty bulbs the size of a baseball are harvested and hung to dry.

“That’s the worst part,” says Alex. “You clean one, dry it, tie it for drying and then repeat a thousand times.”

After drying, the garlic is converted into several products. For now, Kate does the work involving knives and chopping devices and the boys apply the labels as carefully as teenage boys can.

If the labels have an occasional wrinkle, no matter; it is at the farmer’s market where the boys shine. Dyllan says he doesn’t talk much in class, but put him in front of a crowd of potential customers, and he can expound all day on the different ways garlic is used and all its health benefits.

“People ask us a lot about the black garlic — which is regular garlic fermented for eight days,” he says. “I offer them a sample and tell them about it. Adults seem to like it, but I never share that I think it’s gross.”

The 2023 crop was a more modest venture involving 12,000 garlic plants. But the field of dreams got bigger. At one of the regular “board meetings” held around the kitchen table, the boys asked how they could diversify their offering at the farmer’s market. One thousand pumpkins and 1,000 stalks of corn went into the ground as a result.

Sadly, by mid-summer, a beetle infestation had destroyed half the pumpkins. It was a blow, but for Percy and Kate, it was just another lesson for their sons: things don’t always go as planned.

The Garlic Boys don’t get paid. As is the case with any growing business, especially in agriculture, profits are plowed back into fertilizer, straw, seed for next year’s crop and new equipment. The boys do get a say in the two-week end-of-season vacation, which last year took them to Mexico.

If the boys were not developing a farm business, Mom and Dad are convinced they’d be drawn to the time-wasting electronic devices that capture the attention of many young teens.

“We’d rather have them here, connected with us in the outdoors, building something,” said Percy. “And their friends, like honorary Garlic Boy Max MacDonald, want to be here, too. If you give young people something that’s fun and meaningful, they’ll work hard and everyone will be better off for it, both in the short and long run.”

Percy and Kate Cook freely admit they had no experience in agriculture pre-COVID, but if you’d like to learn how they’ve kept their children engaged in growing a niche business, they’d be happy to chat. You can reach out to them through The Garlic Boys Facebook page.
Other parents with interested children but no access to a business opportunity can check out Junior Achievement Nova Scotia, the provincial arm of a global nonprofit committed to empowering youth to own their future success. Through a network of volunteers who share their own life experiences, students are presented with immersive learning experiences in financial literacy, work readiness and entrepreneurship.

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