Local Garlic 2012: A Good Year or a Bad Year?

    “I haven’t seen much garlic at market yet, maybe it’s a bad year?” says Nicole, a resident of Wichita.
    “Are you kidding? I’ve seen garlic the size of my fist at farmers markets around here!” responds Toby, from Bonner Springs.
    “Well, we have two different growers on our farm plot, both using different varieties of garlic, and for both of us this year’s harvest is looking pretty tiny and sad. Meanwhile, our neighbors about a mile down are having great success with their garlic harvest!” says Carmen, Lawrence-area farmer.
    “WOW!” exclaims Jesse. “Who knew we could have such a big difference from farm to farm, even in the same region and town?! It’s a good thing so many different farms are growing garlic. Do you think the varied harvest quality is a result of different micro-climates?”
    Indeed, micro climates are one of many factors that impact crop success or failure. By and large, farmers in our area grow garlic as an unirrigated crop - so the quality of the plants’ growth can be significantly influenced by the quantity of rain received and retained (or not retained) by surrounding soils. Garlic cloves are also usually planted in late fall and garlic bulbs harvested in June or July of the following year. This leaves potential for all four seasons to impact their growth!
    So, what were the last four seasons in Kansas like? Generally speaking: Fall 2011 was hot and dry; Winter 2011/2012 was mild and dry; Spring was hot and dry; and just a week into summer, I think it is safe to say it’s been (you guessed it) relatively hot and dry. Hmmm… seems like there’s a bit of a pattern there: this year’s local garlic crop has been somewhat consistently subject to not much rainfall, not much cold, and plenty of heat.
    Is that a problem? What kind of weather does garlic like? Garlic is willingly cold hardy and, in fact, cold temperatures help garlic break dormancy and prepare to grow. At the same time, most garlic varieties are not particularly fond of hot weather. Late fall planting and late spring/ early summer harvest generally helps garlic avoid heat stress – but not this year!
    Does garlic really need that much rain? When it comes to water, garlic isn’t too greedy – but if it had a choice, garlic would prefer access to an inch of water every week. This year, Kansas’ average rainfall has fallen quite short of that demand.
    So, it sounds like conditions were probably not favorable for garlic this year - but how can we explain the difference in harvest success from one farm to the next? Well… it’s complicated! As Jesse indicated above, different micro-climates certainly can play a role. But, so can different soil types, different garlic varieties, and different growing practices. Garlic thrives in deep, fertile, well drained soil with a ph of 6 or 7, and limited weed competition. Some varieties are well adapted to hot, dry conditions while others require several weeks of exposure to average temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit for proper development. Add to these factors the busy farmer’s ability to plant the garlic in well prepared soils during the ideal planting window (usually after first frost – which happened in late October last year), and then manage weeds the following spring. Mulching can help limit disease and weed pressure, conserve soil moisture, and protect garlic from deep cold in winter – but it is not necessarily economical for every farm. Planting saved cloves from previous harvests can also help garlic acclimate to the local climate.
    But wait, there’s one more variable to consider! Garlic cloves each contain energy and nutrients capable of supporting the initial growth of the garlic plants. In ideal conditions, garlic will set roots during winter or fall, but will conserve energy and nutrients for production of green growth until Spring conditions prove suitable. Do you remember when it started to feel like Spring this year? As I recall, there were several times during winter when it felt like Spring to me. Depending on the garlic variety, the growing practices, the soil quality, and numerous climatic/micro-climatic variables, it would have been possible for garlic to think Spring came early multiple times too. Where that was the case, the garlic might have exhausted its nutrient stores before truly ideal growing conditions presented themselves.
    PHEW! To successfully grow quality garlic, or other crops, farmers really need to know a lot… and even then Mother Nature can still take them by surprise! I don’t know about you but, the next time I am wandering through my area farmers market and see a garlic bulb – large or small – I’ll be sure to thank the farmer for growing it (seemingly against all odds!).
‘Bagna Cauda’ Recipe
Modified from The Stinking Cookbook
by Tracey Graham, Kansas Rural Center, Local Food Field Coordinator – Twin Rivers Region

Tracey says:  
“Pure heaven.  My husband and I are addicted to this delicious dish!”

1 c peeled garlic cloves
1 c extra virgin olive oil
2 oz butter
1 T anchovy paste

Place all ingredients in a covered casserole dish.  Roast at 275o for 1 ½ hours.  Serve with bread and/or cut up vegetables.

This is great as a dip for veggies or a spread on crusty Italian or French bread.
Or use it as the starter for garlic bread by whipping some of it with an equal amount of softened butter.

Tagged: farming, farms, kansas, garden, local food, health, nutrition, vegetable, garlic, food


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