Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Garlic Harvest 2017 - It All Depends on the Weather!

By Farmer Richard

I’ve been growing garlic since 1975.  When I first started farming, I didn’t have the ability to do a “google search” to find an answer to a farming question or learn about how to grow different vegetables.  I had to search for my own answers.  So when it came to growing garlic, I tapped another farmer on the shoulder to try to learn more about it.  That farmer was Dave Frattalone, an experienced grower who sold vegetables at the St. Paul farmers’ market.  At the time, Dave was planting a soft neck garlic variety in the spring.  His yield was slim and the bulbs were small, but he had the monopoly on that market because no one else knew how to grow garlic any better!  When I asked Dave for some garlic education, he made it very clear to me that I was on my own to figure this one out.  So, I did my own research and found a grower in Canada who was growing a hard neck type of garlic that he planted in the fall.  So I bought some hard neck garlic seed, planted it in the fall, and the following summer I brought some beautiful garlic bulbs to market to show Dave Frattalone.  While he didn’t say it in words, I could tell that I had earned Dave’s respect with this garlic.  He asked me how I had grown such big, beautiful garlic and I willingly shared the secret with him….plant it in the fall!  This was an important moment in my farming career.  I still had a lot to learn about other vegetables and Dave was one of the old-timers that knew a lot of the information I needed to learn, such as when to plant cauliflower for fall harvest.  Garlic was the key to open the door to this wealth of experience and knowledge.

The crew cracking garlic last fall for planting

While I did buy seed stock in my early years, I quickly learned that garlic seed sold as “disease free” was rarely ever really disease free.  Fusarium basal rot is a common disease in garlic.  Garlic “seed” is actually the cloves on a bulb of garlic.  If you have disease on the bulb, you will likely spread the disease from one year into the next.  In an effort to prevent fusarium basal rot in my garlic, I decided it might be a better idea to raise our own seed stock.  So for the past 30 years we’ve maintained our own seed for two major varieties of hard neck garlic and every year we take the best, biggest, nicest garlic bulbs and plant them for the next year’s crop.

Garlic is not a crop we grow for the wholesale market.  Gilroy, California used to be the “Garlic Capitol of the World,” but now most of the garlic is produced in China and South America, organic included.  Unfortunately the price you can get for garlic is pretty cheap, but the cost to produce garlic is high.  Nonetheless, we still consider garlic to be an important part of our CSA season as well as our own diets!  So we continue to grow garlic and after all these years, I’m still learning how to grow the best garlic!

2016 Fall planting
Mulched garlic field ready for the winter!
This year’s crop was planted last October.  The bulbs were cracked and the individual cloves were separated.  The nice, big cloves that came off of good quality bulbs were set aside to plant for full-sized garlic. If there were any small cloves on a bulb, those cloves were saved to be planted as green garlic.  It’s important for the garlic roots to become well-established before the ground freezes for the winter.  The mulch is important to the survival of garlic over the winter because it protects the garlic from extreme temperature changes and excessive freezing and thawing.  However, you have to get the mulch off the garlic in the spring so the new growth can push through!  Unfortunately, our field crew hadn’t arrived yet when this needed to be done this spring.  As soon as they arrived, one of the first missions they had was to pull back some of the tight-packed mulch.  As a result, we may have lost a few plants that just couldn’t push through the mulch.  But that’s the life of farming, there are no guarantees.  The remaining plants looked really good and have produced some very nice garlic this year!

This year we tried a new method for watering the garlic.  We buried drip tape in the beds so we could easily irrigate and had a means of delivering nutrients through the drip lines at some critical stages of their growth.  After all the garlic scapes were removed from the plants, we watched them closely for signs of maturity and watched the weather closely because, even though we stopped irrigating weeks ago, a heavy rain could make harvest difficult and increase the potential for disease. 

I often use the phrase “it all depends on the weather.” Well, garlic harvest is no different and it is always dependent on the weather.  I’ve been closely watching the garlic as it matures over the past few weeks, while also keeping close watch on the weather forecast.  We deemed this week as the major push to harvest our 1.5 acre field of garlic.  This is no small task and requires a significant amount of crew and time to complete the harvest.  We still have to keep up with our regular harvest schedule while trying to tackle the garlic, so it has proven to be an “All Hands On Deck” kind of week!  To add an element of urgency, they were predicting rain and thunderstorms to move into the area Tuesday night with predictions of over one inch of rainfall.  Yikes!  That could ruin a garlic crop overnight!
Garlic in the greenhouse starting to dry.

So we have been running full throttle since the beginning of the day on Monday and anyone who was available to help with the harvest has joined the fun.  We made pretty good progress in two days and estimated that we’d have about 75% of the crop harvested by the end of the work day on Tuesday.  I asked some field crew members to go to the garlic field after their harvest was complete on Tuesday evening.  We needed help picking up the garlic that had already been dug.  I only intended for them to help get things picked up.  I didn’t anticipate that they decided that they were so close to being finished, we might as well work late, dig the remainder and be done for the year!  We worked until after 8 pm, but at the end of the night every piece of garlic was in the greenhouse.  I must say, it was a good way to end the day and I feel very blessed to be able to work with such a loyal, dedicated, “get the job done” kind of a crew.  They did it…and Tuesday night the weather forecast came true.  We got 1.5 inches of rain overnight.  Good job guys.  Job well done.    
Final harvest sheet records for garlic this year!

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