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Meet Rick Westgarth, Guelph's canning champion

'Whatever the fair calls for, I’ll do it,' said Rick Westgarth about his hobby

Thanks to a jar of jam, one Guelph man’s hobby has turned him into a county fair champion in multiple fairs across southwestern Ontario.

“It keeps me busy,” said Rick Westgarth about canning. “My daughter figured I have 34 different flavours on the shelf at one time, because whatever’s there, I fool around with and try different combinations of things, you just never know what you’re going to find in my jams.”

Westgarth said he became interested in learning how to make jam after he stopped receiving a case of homemade jam from his mother, who got the case from another woman. 

At the time, his mother was also involved in the Sutton Fair & Horse Show, which is near Lake Simcoe, and suggested to Westgarth that he should enter his jams into the fair.

“That was fun, “ said Westgarth about the experience, “and I got some seconds and thirds and fourths for some jams I sent up.” 

Afterwards, Westgarth decided to enter into the Aberfoyle Agricultural Fair, and began to get serious about competing.

“I entered pickles and jam and everything else, and I turned out to be the canning champion,” he said. “At the same time, I decided that since I can bake cheesecakes, I can probably bake pretty much anything, so I entered baking and I was also the baking champion.” 

Twelve years later, Westgarth has been crowned the champion canner at the Schomberg, Beeton and Sutton fairs. He has also been crowned a champion in Erin, Fergus, Aberfoyle, Grand Valley, Hanover and Caledonia to compete.

At the Caledonia Fair, Westgarth did ‘very well’ receiving 110 ribbons, including 40 first place ribbons, in 143 categories. 

“I try to hit as many as I can,” said Westgarth about the Caledonia Fair. “I was the champion baker, the champion canner, the champion crafts, the champion pie baker and the champion butter tart baker, so I did really well down there.”

Westgarth said he likes going to different places to compete in fairs. Prior to the Caledonia Fair, he said he had never been to the area before.

"I've never been to Hanover, I've never been to Grand Valley, so because of the fairs, I've been to those places." 

“I like getting to meet different people and sharing different ideas,” said Westgarth, giving another reason for his interest in competing. “The ladies are always surprised to see me, they figure, ‘Oh yeah, this is cute, this guy is coming to participate.’”

Through these competitions, Westgarth said he has learned to look out for certain things within entering different categories.

“There’s things happening behind the scenes that you don’t know about, the rules,” said Westgarth. “If you have four cookies on your plate instead of three, you get eliminated, so you have to be careful of these things.”

When it comes to his success at the fairs, Westgarth cites his former background as an elementary school teacher. He has been retired now for 15 years.

“Everyone wonders why I do so well. I think it’s because I was a teacher, and I think of them as doing an experiment,” he said, “so all my baking, I figure they’re like experiments, the same thing as the jam, it was one of those things just once I got started, it was pretty simple.”

With canning, Westgarth has experimented with different types of jam, making blueberry jam, gooseberry jam, peach raspberry jam and even a ‘Christmas jam’ which has a cranberry base.  

“I would do six different kinds of jam a day for fun because once I got started and had a mess, I just kept going.” said Westgarth, who also cans pickles.

During the pandemic, Westgarth said he made about 1200 jars of jam. Currently, he has been busy giving it away to other people. Westgarth explains he would rather donate the jam because if he starts selling them, then it turns into work.

“I gave 80 jars to the health unit, I gave 80 jars to a  friend of mine for a fundraiser, our dentist, our doctor, our hairdresser… our pharmacy, anyone I come in contact with,” said Westgarth. “The garbage truck guy going by got jam, and most recently, the humane society.” 

"Everybody enjoys the jam."

For anyone who is interested in participating in county fairs, Westgarth recommends checkout out

"Just look at the categories, and if there's something you're interested in doing, try it."