Walk into a grocery store and you’ll find one or maybe two varieties of garlic. Visit a local garlic farm, and you’ll smell dozens of different varieties, each with its own flavor, scent, and color.
You’re probably used to soft neck varieties, which have a mild flavor and can be stored and eaten for months after they’ve been harvested. Morgan Decker from Root Bottom Farm in Madison County, North Carolina explains the difference between soft necks and hard necks. “The hard necks, which don’t store as long, typically have more character and more color, like purple skin. They have more flavor than the ones you typically find at a grocery store.”
Morgan and his wife Sarah Jones Decker grow nearly a dozen varieties, with names like Creole Red, Thai Fire, and Sicilian Silver. Some are spicy with a real kick, and others have a mild, delicate flavor.
“I like providing different varieties that people maybe have never heard of,” he says. “So I like that aspect of it, and I like the growing of it. I like just sticking a clove in the ground in the fall and then watching it poke up a month later and survive the winter. It’s one of the first green things to show up in my field in March and April.”
After the garlic sprouts in the spring, it continues to grow until mid-summer. Garlic is harvested in June and July around here. Farmers either sell it fresh, when the skin is so thin it doesn’t need to be peeled, or cure it in a barn so it can be sold in early fall, like the garlic you’ll find at farmers markets this time of year.
“Not every single farmer at the farmers market grows it, but a lot of farmers do,” Decker says. “Seems like they don’t have a problem selling it, especially this time of year there’s a shortage of garlic.”
Why is there a shortage of garlic right now? Partly because it’s such a labor intensive crop. Decker says he handles each bulb of garlic five or six times per season—planting each one, digging them up, hanging them in the barn to cure, trimming each one, and then packaging them. He grows 8,000 garlic plants per season. That’s a lot of hands-on work, and many farmers like him also grow tomatoes, beans, squash, and a myriad of other crops at the same time.
Trial and error is a big part of being a garlic farmer here because not every variety of garlic grows well in our climate. “Here in the mountains of North Carolina, it’s almost too hot for some varieties,” Decker explains. “So actually selecting varieties that do well in this climate is half the challenge. A lot of garlics are pretty hardy. You can grow them in Vermont and the mountains of Utah at 7,000 feet, but if you take that same garlic and grow it here, it just doesn’t perform as well.”
Demand for local garlic is growing, and farmers are working hard to get these flavorful bulbs into the hands of chefs, home cooks, and artisan producers. Luckily, there’s still some garlic to be found at farmers markets and festivals this fall. Root Bottom Farm offers a garlic sampler, which contains a dozen spicy or mild varieties of garlic packaged in an egg carton that is perfect for cooking or planting.
There’s also a special event where you can taste some unusual foods made with local garlic. The WNC Garlic Fest is coming up on October 7th in Asheville, and there will be garlic ice cream, garlic tea, garlic butter, and even garlic chocolate. There are also classes on how to grow your own garlic, how to ferment these spicy bulbs, and the nutritional benefits of cooking with garlic.
The festival is a chance to talk to garlic farmers about how and why they grow the crop. It’s a great time to ask questions when farmers are out of the fields and have time to share their knowledge and enthusiasm.
If you’re equally excited about garlic, learn about all of the farms in the area that grow it, and where to find their bulbs, in ASAP’s Local Food Guide: www.appalachiangrown.org
Aired: September 25, 2017