Friday, July 27, 2012

Farm Bulletin: Garlic, aka the Stinking Lily

There are very few things that cause me to panic. And even fewer when it comes to cooking. But one of the ingredients I consider a must-have-on-hand is garlic, preferably several heads. Like the Holy Trinity of New Orleans cooking…celery, onions, green peppers…garlic and onions are revered in my kitchen. In this essay contributor Anthony Boutard reveals how the Allium sativum found a home at Ayers Creek Farm.

About eight years ago we received a call from a young couple who asked if they could grow their garlic at the farm. It was early autumn and they had just moved out to Oregon and had an extensive garlic collection they needed to plant immediately. The situation was dire, so we agreed to consider their request. Farm land is either rented for cash or a share of the crop. Cash rent is the most common arrangement, but sharecropping offers some advantages. A few years ago, we agreed to a share in wheat that was grown on the farm. We earned considerably more with this arrangement, but we had to wait longer for the money. He stored the wheat for two years and the price went up nicely. The share is typically a third of the crop for the landowner.

Tito (at left) inspecting the crop.

When Josh and Sarah approached us, we were bulking up on crops for the winter market and it made sense for us to take a share of the actual crop. They would need us to do tractor work, irrigation and other odds and ends, making any sort cash arrangement difficult to calculate. We settled upon a one-fifth share for us. It was generous to them, but we also benefited because it allowed us to share in a very diverse collection of garlics. They had been featured in the New York Times food section, and we referred to them as the Famous Garlic Farmers in earlier newsletters. After four years, they found a place of their own and still grow garlic [at Sacred Organics - KAB]. Josh also works in the produce department of the Cedar Hills New Seasons store. So we will see him over the next few weeks while delivering the Chesters.

Somehow or another, this stinking lily bulb composed of fat storage leaves has built up a fair measure of mystique. Talking about garlic, things can get complicated pretty quickly. If you are only growing garlic, that's fine, but we have too many things swirling around to tolerate much nuance. Early on and endearingly earnest, we labelled every variety sold at the market and kept them separate for planting. The market labels lasted just a couple of weeks; they disappeared when people starting asking what variety we would recommend for fish or aioli. With our forestry and natural history backgrounds, we are inclined to think in terms of populations rather than narrowly drawn varieties. Now we select about 100 pounds of the best garlics and plant them. Eliminating the organizational demands allows us to plant more and harvest faster.  The harvest took more than a week early on, and now two of us have everything dug, bundled and hanging in two days, with help from Sylvia, Carol's sister.

There are two major types of garlic, hard neck and soft neck. The hard necks are the most flavorful but do not store for a long time. These are the bulbs we are bringing to the market now. The soft necks are less complex in their flavors but remain in good condition well into the springtime. We will sell these when the hard necks are all sold, typically starting in December. As you use our garlic, you will still see traces of the diverse collection brought to our farm by Sarah and Josh. On the other hand, the conditions and character of Ayers Creek Farm and its owners are shaping the population as well. If you consider the wonderful names of garlic varieties, they almost always indicate a region of origin. Over time, this population of garlic will be tightly linked to the soils and management conditions of Gaston, just as 'Creole Red', 'German White' or 'Georgian Crystal' are linked to their regions. Maybe it's time to call the hard neck 'Wapato Wed'.

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