Thursday, 23 September 2010

A Visit to August's Harvest Garlic Farm

On Sunday we took a tour of local farms put on by Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Week. Our first stop was August's Harvest, where we were greeted by owner Warren Ham. He explained that they grow about 10 acres of garlic, about 10 acres of shallots. He's been growing garlic for 21 years, and this year is his first with a general vegetable CSA, for which he grows 60 varieties of vegetables.

We started out in his barn/shed where much of the action is taking place at this time of year. The machinery above is used to remove the outer layer of dirty skin from the garlic heads, leaving them smooth and clean. Cases of packed garlic surround the cleaner.

Warren showed us his garlic curing device; garlic is put in chipboard box, and as the moist warm air rises from it, it is pulled out by the fan on top.

Warren explained that the garlic they grow is allium longicuspis, a very ancient form. It has fewer cloves than more modern varieties of garlic, having only 4 to 6 cloves. It is, in fact, our old friend "Music". Did you know that fresh garlic has a higher sugar content than grapes?! I didn't.

Next to the curer sacks of garlic cloves await planting. Cases of processed garlic products line the shelves behind them. The garlic heads, by the way, are all cracked (broken apart) by hand. Machinery exists to do this, but a lot of it gets bruised and damaged. It's planted by hand too, for the same reason. However, it can be harvested by being undercut and lifted mechanically. It then is left to cure in the field for 10 days before coming in to be cleaned, finished in the box curer, sized and crated. Much of it is sold to the local Korean market.

I've spoken a bit about garlic bulbils on the blog before. Garlic is interesting in that it does not flower or produce seeds. Garlic is normally propagated by breaking the heads into cloves and planting the cloves in the fall. Like daffodils, they will form roots in the cool late fall and early winter weather, then go dormant until the spring. In the early summer, as they grow, the clove of garlic will expand and split into more cloves of garlic, ultimately forming a new head.

However, this vegetative reproduction (cloning, basically) means that any viruses or stubborn fungi or bacteria the cloves pick up over time tend to get reproduced as well, and over a few years the garlic can really deteriorate. You can solve this problem by sending sound garlic to a laboratory to be reproduced through tissue culture. However, there is an easier and cheaper way to revitalize your garlic.

While they don't produce flowers, garlics do produce a long, looping flower stalk, generally known as a scape. Usually these are removed. This achieves two things; the plants' energy is redirected to produce a larger head of garlic in the ground, and the scape can be sold as the tasty delicacy that it is. However, if the scape is allowed to develop, in the fall the garlic will be topped by a head of little bulbils - tiny garlic cloves, identical to the cloves growing underground except in size. Because they are above ground and not in contact with the soil, they do not accumulate the problems that the underground cloves and heads may suffer from.

So, every few years some of the garlic is allowed to form bulbils. The bulbils are planted, and the first year they form a single round clove of garlic. That's what is in the bushel basket in the photo above. These will be planted again, and next summer they will form heads of garlic. After 4 years of planting, the garlic will be fully mature and can be treated as usual.

Once we had been shown the process that the harvested garlic goes through, we went out and looked at the garden. August's Harvest also runs a CSA, and rows of peppers, tomatoes, Jerusalem artichokes and other vegetables were still there, although the brassicas had been harvested.

Warren Ham was a prairie boy originally, and he still grows a favourite fruit of his childhood - Saskatoon berries. The shrubs have been moved recently, so are still quite small.

There's all those squash we saw at the Garlic Festival the day before. Beyond them, the garlic fields are full of mustard. The mustard is grown until the seed pods begin to ripen, then it is plowed into the ground. The strong mustard kills some of the pests of garlic, in particular nematodes and, I would think, acts as a green manure as well. I was chatting about this with Warren's lead hand at the garlic festival, and I'm going to try the simplified version he was recommending; mixing powdered hot mustard seed with water and watering it into the soil. I'm going to try this around my turnips and rutabagas, which are somewhat prone to getting worm damage. It might work and even if it doesn't, I will have only lost a few pennies worth of mustard and a little time, and no harm will be done to the soil.

However, it's an action-packed day so it's time to get back on the bus and head on to the next farm...

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