Friday, November 11, 2011

Garlique Chic: Growing Speciality Crops

As a farmer, what do you do when you don’t have the land, equipment or know-how to plant the popular commodity crops, like corn and soy, which have kept many American family farms in business?

You zero in on niche markets. By specializing in unique products, we aim to leverage our business/ marketing skills and focus our time and resources as we learn to farm.

Growing hops, definitely a “specialty crop,” meets demand in the small, but fast-growing craft brew industry. That got us thinking about other fruits and vegetables for which consumers have specific preferences.  

Thus began our great garlic experiment.  Garlic as a “specialty” product? You bet! Consumers have distinct tastes in garlic. Mostly, it depends on regional cuisine. Although only a few varieties are offered at the general supermarket  (including Elephant Garlic which is really a type of onion), there are actually dozens of varieties – Italian, Polish, Russian, German and the list goes on. Immigrants have brought regional types of garlic to the U.S. for centuries, so today’s growers have the benefit of having access to heritage types that have been passed down through the generations.
Each clove will become a whole garlic 7 months
In August, we purchased cloves from two online sources: GreyDuck Garlic, which grows certified organic garlic, and Seed Savers Exchange. SSE’s seed catalog is totally drool-worthy for the aspiring farmer and their mission to preserve crop varieties through organized seed banks is an honorable one. By September, several of the most popular varieties were already sold out. (Guess it is a growing market.) We ordered these three varieties that are known for their usefulness in cooking as well as their cold tolerance:
  • German Extra Hardy
  • Georgian Crystal
  • Siberian (there’s Bree’s regional preference)
In October, 100 cloves arrived in small FedEx boxes, along with thorough planting instructions – bonus! Last week, the soil temperature finally got down to the recommended planting temperature of 50F degrees. Although garlic can be planted in the spring, they say that the best tasting garlic overwinters. That is, it is planted in the late fall (after the first frost) and harvested in late spring.

Here’s how we conducted the Great Garlic Experiment: 

First, we prepped four test beds in a broad, open patch in the pear orchard. (According to The Gardener’s A-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food by Tanya Denckla Cobb (here is her blog, Reclaiming Our Food), garlic is compatible with orchards fruits.) The tedious part was poking over 100 1x4 inch holes and then pushing single cloves into each hole, point up.  (If we plant next year, Rich is definitely going to develop some tool to make it go faster.)  Luckily, garlic cloves can be planted only six inches apart and require little maintenance apart from weeding.  One very common mistake people make is planting the cloves upside-down or in areas with poor drainage.
Last, we piled them under a thick blanket of mulched leaves and grass clippings for a long winter’s nap. And now we wait 6-8 months to see what sprouts.
Camouflage garlic patch - marked off so we don't mow over it.
Loss of food variety and flavors is very real in the U.S. Here, National Geographic’s dramatic infographic  visualizes the homogenization of our food options. They estimate 93% of seeds that used to be available for U.S. agriculture last century are now gone.
Curbing that scary trend will take effort on both sides. Consumers need to be educated about the benefits of variety and locally-grown crops. In the case of garlic, most people only know about the Italian garlic typically grown in California. On the grower’s side, niche markets are often avoided because of their volatility.  As these markets rise and fall, small-scale farmers must remain flexible. (Hard to do when a crop takes six months to grow!)

That’s where we stand right now: poised to enter the growing gourmet garlic market.  That is, assuming we grow it well.  If so, we’ll expand our crop next fall. If not, we can chalk it up to research and continue to search for our perfect market fit.


  1. Good luck with your garlic test. I'm anxious to the results.
    Rees Cowden

    1. Thank you, Rees. With this mild winter that has brought mostly wet ground, we are lucky to have planted on higher ground (not planned). We'll post the results!

    2. Folks:

      Good luck with your garlic crop this year. You have a lot of good garlic growing resources in the state of NY which I think is the fourth largest producer of stiffneck garlic in the country. Garlic is a terrific niche crop and I see myself in your own beginnings when I started growing garlic in 2004. Nothing better starts off a conversation with complete strangers than to tell them you grow garlic!

      Don Womack