Friday Takeaway: For the love of garlic

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, July 21, 2017, by Caroline Pam

Just when the tomatoes start to ripen, and we’re practically drowning in squash and cucumbers, we have to stop everything on the farm for a full day to harvest the garlic. At Kitchen Garden Farm in Sunderland, where my husband Tim Wilcox and I grow 50 acres of organic vegetables, garlic is essential. We don’t actually grow all that much of it relative to the acres and acres of carrots, beets, lettuce and kale that we plant for constant availability. But of the hundred or so different vegetables we grow, garlic is the one that I couldn’t do without.

When I first met Tim back in 2003, I told my friends about “Garlic Boy,” who had a stand selling garlic, herbs, teas and tinctures at the Union Square Farmers Market in New York City, where I was a market manager. He had recently returned from working on a few farms in Italy, and I was planning a trip to do the same. He invited me to the farm he was managing in New Paltz, New York, on my 26th birthday, and I helped him harvest young spring garlic at its tender, juicy scallion stage. His station wagon reeked of garlicky roots, but I didn’t mind.

I turned 40 this year, and we’re still planting garlic seed saved from our first farm jobs from that era. Tim collected Russian Red Garlic from the Hampshire College farm in Amherst where he worked summers while he was a student there, and I saved German Hardy White from my apprenticeship days at Food Bank Farm in Hadley.

We also save seed from a few of our favorite heirloom tomatoes and hot peppers. But the majority of the seeds we plant now are purchased from organic seed companies, like Johnny’s in Maine and High Mowing in Vermont, which specialize in producing high-quality seeds that germinate consistently, grow true to type and yield well.

Every July when we harvest the garlic and hang it in the rafters of the barn to dry and cure, we select the most vigorous plants with the biggest bulbs and hang them separately for our seed stock. We plant around 300 pounds of garlic each year, and holding back this amount means we won’t get paid for selling it. But it also means next year’s garlic will be well adapted to our farm’s soils and growing conditions, and we won’t have to spend upwards of $20 per pound to purchase new seed.

This year’s garlic crop was not our best, perhaps due to cold temperatures this winter and some new varieties we are trialing. Sadly, this will be the last year for the German Hardy White we’ve been growing all this time, since it’s showing signs of disease and declining vigor. Rather than save and re-plant our German seed, we decided to bunch it as spring garlic and sell it off.

As with all things in farming, diversification is key, and a few of the newer varieties, such as Spanish Roja and Rosewood, that we’ve been growing and saving the last few years are looking big and healthy. When we set up at the Garlic & Arts Festival in Orange in September, our stand will be well stocked with eight varieties of garlic, ranging from spicy red hardnecks like Persian Star to creamy, nutty softnecks like Chet’s Italian.

The sadness of letting go of a treasured favorite heirloom is eased by the pleasure of eating it. Even at this hectic time of the season, when we’re working long days and ordering pizza more nights than not, I simply must cook my ultimate comfort food: pasta aglio, olio e pepperoncini, spaghetti with lots of chopped fresh garlic and dried chilies swimming in olive oil and topped with Parmesan.

Nothing is as simple and satisfying. And, for once, our kids, seven and nine, don’t complain about eating their vegetables.