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Why Market Farmers Should Not Overlook Garlic

Not every market farmer makes room to grow garlic, but perhaps every farmer should.

by Jesse FrostMarch 16, 2017
PHOTO: iStock/Thinkstock

Garlic is genuinely one of my favorite crops to grow. I love to eat it, plant it, harvest it—I love the whole process. But my fondness for a crop can’t always be the determining factor in whether or not I grow it, especially when it comes to long-season crops like garlic. Anything I grow has to add a sufficient amount of value to farm and market table for me to keep growing it. Luckily for garlic, that value is near endless.

The value of garlic comes in part from the many ways it can be sold and for the reaction customers have to seeing it on the market table, but it also comes from how well it fits into my crop rotations and for how it is one of the few things growing in January. So let’s examine a few of those values and talk about why any market farmer should find room in his garden and heart for this critical crop.

Garlic Sells Itself

Garlic is a nearly ubiquitous ingredient in cooking. Just about every basic recipe calls for it—and let’s be honest, it’s used even when recipes don’t call for it—so a customer does not have to have a recipe in mind to feel compelled to purchase it, nor generally any explanation on what to do with. Countless times we have sold a couple $2 bulbs of garlic at the end of a sale to customers who say, “I know I’ll use it.”

Garlic Takes Many Forms

When we think of garlic, we mostly think of the bulbs. But there are at least six different ways that garlic can be marketed—probably a lot more if you want to get creative.

Green Garlic

It starts in the spring with green garlic. These are delicacies to the right chefs and home cooks that can be pickled or used fresh. Green garlic can be harvest all the way up until the garlic starts to “clove up.” It still good, but at that point we call it fresh garlic. To ensure we have plenty of green garlic, we plant all of our “seconds” cloves in thick rows a foot apart, with the cloves 1 to 2 inches apart in rows.

Garlic Scapes

Next up in the season comes garlic scares—the flowering stock on hard neck garlic—which can be bunched and sold. We like “five for a $1,” but you can sell them however you see fit. Make sure to harvest them fast, though, because taking too much time to harvest such a cheap crop lowers its profitability. But like garlic, scapes will bring people to the table because they’re fun to cook with and intriguing to look at.

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Fresh Garlic

After scapes you have fresh garlic. This is garlic before it’s cured but after it has bulbed, and it’s arguably the best flavor as it is the juiciest and most robust. Be gentle with it as it will bruise, but I suggest cutting some at your market table and just allowing people to smell it—garlic does its own advertising.

Cured Garlic

Finally, you have cured garlic, which depending on the variety, can last many months—definitely well into the winter market season.

Garlic Wreaths

You can also weave the soft neck varieties to make “wreaths,” which can be a small value-added item. They’re a good seller around the holidays.

Value-Added Garlic Products

If you wind up with extra bulbs after markets end, you could find a dehydrator and commercial kitchen to turn it into garlic powder, black garlic, pickled garlic or whatever product you think will keep it making you money through the rest of the year.

A Market Farmer’s Rotation Plan

All of my long-season crops are on a three-year rotation in their own plots, so that means I rotate my potatoes, sweet potatoes and garlic together. Garlic follows potatoes, and sweet potatoes follow garlic. To make this profitable, I do as little with these plots as I can. Every plot gets tarped to help suppress weeds, and I try to limit the amount of handwork. When harvest comes, we try to make an event out of it so we have many hands to help. Keeping the labor down is essential. I also use cover crops and some compost to retain fertility. And when I can, I will plant some extra winter squash after the garlic and before the sweet potatoes to further enrich that real estate.

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