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Raising, consuming garlic in Minnesota a growing trend

Chris Kudna of St. Cloud with a handful of harvested garlic. Contributed photo

Luke Ahrndt of Litchfield has always loved garlic, ever since he was a kid. “I can eat it raw. I put it in hamburgers, and I love garlic cheese bread! But my favorite way to eat garlic is to put garlic butter on corn on the cob!” exclaimed Luke. “But I never knew you could grow garlic in Minnesota.”

Like many people, Luke thought garlic could only be grown in warm climates – the Mediterranean and California, for instance. But actually, garlic has been grown all over the world and does quite well in our northern climate.

According to Luke, garlic originated in the “fertile crescent,” that area in the Middle East that makes a rough crescent moon arc from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. The fertile crescent is often called “The Cradle of Civilization” due to being known as the birthplace of agriculture, as well as of many other components of modern civilization, such as writing, science and organized religion. There is some controversy about the true origins of Allium sativum (garlic’s scientific name), as garlic was also in use in China and in the Indian subcontinent thousands of years ago, and may have been developed in China before being brought to the Middle East. Nevertheless, all authorities agree that garlic has been in use as both a food and a medicinal plant for thousands of years. References to garlic have been found in the Egyptian pyramids and Greek temples, as well as in ancient Biblical texts.

Luke points out that wherever it originated, garlic has spread to being cultivated worldwide. It is grown in Russia and near the Black Sea, as well as in areas of Northern Europe, where varieties have been developed to withstand the cooler weather. Luke grows many varieties of garlic. In fact, he was told by a woman of Russian descent that a variety called “Chesnok,” a popular variety amongst Minnesota garlic growers, is actually just the Russian name for garlic.

Gathering scapes. Photo by Chris Kudna

Luke first attended the Garlic Festival in 2008, when it was still held in Howard Lake. (Now the Minnesota Garlic Festival takes place in Hutchinson in mid-August.) That was when he suddenly realized that garlic could be grown in Minnesota. He purchased some to plant, and began to grow his own garlic. Soon, friends became involved and they began planting in earnest. At one point, Luke planted 24,000 cloves of garlic. This year he has decided to slim down to a more reasonable 5,000 heads of garlic.

Luke’s garlic is all planted, cultivated, and harvested by hand, using organic growing methods. (He can’t say his farm is organic, since it has not been certified organic, but they stay as close to organic methods as possible.)

“It’s a small farm,” he said of his family’s farm near Litchfield, “only 130 acres, but we are also raising grass-fed beef, a variety of vegetables, and we have some other things in mind.” Right now, Luke has one acre set aside for his garlic growing enterprise. He plants about a quarter acre at a time, and rotates where he plants the garlic to prevent the spread of disease.

Luke also makes pickled garlic scapes, which he only sells locally, and garlic powder (a dried and easily stored garlic product). And, of course, he keeps some for himself and his family to enjoy.

Chris Kudrna explained that garlic is like wine. It takes on the characteristics of the soil in which it is grown. So – where a variety of garlic grown in one person’s soil may taste a certain way, the same variety, grown in a different type of soil, even if nearby, they may taste very different. The concept, in wine terms, is “terroir,” which, literally translated from the French, means “soil.”

Chris and his wife Joanne purchased 13 acres south of St. Cloud a few years back, and are now in their 9th year of growing garlic.

“We experimented with different things, different cover crops, different varieties of garlic, but we eventually settled on the ones that work best for us,” said Chris. Chris and Joanne live in St. Cloud, and enjoy coming out to “the farm” to work in their large garden and do much of the processing.

“It’s kind of like a cabin, yet with more chores,” commented Chris. “And it’s only 15-20 minutes away.”

Their 13-acre-parcel is nestled between tree lines on the south and the east. A few acres of prairie grasses and wildflowers are planted between the garden and the tree line. A small hill is planted with apple trees; there are raspberries, hazelnuts and a huge asparagus bed. Back behind the shed are walking trails leading into the woods, bringing a wonderful back-to-nature experience to their city friends who enjoy coming out on weekends to help on the farm.

“Our mission is building community as we grow garlic,” said Chris, who points out that they invite friends and neighbors for a party when they are at a significant point in their growing season. In June, for instance, volunteers help them pick the garlic scapes. These flower stalks, which sprout after the first leaves of the garlic plant, would divert energy away from the bulb of the garlic, so most garlic growers cut off the scapes. They can then be sautéed or grilled, or put into any food that one might use garlic in. At harvest time in July, there is another party. Friends and neighbors help with the work and then enjoy the fun. This method has worked well for Chris and Joanne, since the help is very much appreciated, and allows them to enjoy the experience as well.

Sunny Ruthchild just finished planting about 7,000 cloves of garlic at her farm near Walnut Grove, on a beautiful day in mid-October. She described the process as one in which many hours are spent planning; then many hours are spent doing.

“But no matter how much you plan, there is always drama!” exclaimed Sunny. This year she had a large amount of compost delivered to her farm. There were mountains of compost that needed to be spread and tilled in. But before she could begin to spread the compost, it began to rain. “So then I spent three weeks staring at messy compost!”

When it is dry enough, pounds of garlic has to be sorted through to finding the best cloves to start planting with. Contributed photo

Eventually it dried out enough for her to begin planting…then she had to sort through pounds of garlic, finding the best cloves to start planting with (“you know, you only plant the biggest and best cloves!”).

Starting on Thursday, Sunny planted for at least 6 hours every day until Tuesday, when she was finally finished. “And now I have 200 feet of straw coming to mulch it all with!” said Sunny.

Sunny has seven compost-rich, deeply tilled garden beds, each approximately 3 ½ feet across by 120 feet long. Of course, she rotates every year, making sure she does not plant her garlic in the same place twice.

“When you are growing organically, you must be mindful of hygiene,” said Sunny. “You don’t want to plant your clean garlic in ‘dirty’ soil,” she said, explaining that the reason growers rotate their garlic planting locations is in order to minimize the likelihood of infection.

There may have been a lot of drama in planting, but there is also excitement. “Every year, I try to introduce something new,” said Sunny. This year she is planting some Vietnamese garlic which “has a very distinctive Asian flavor,” as well as some varieties of garlic from the Czech Republic, sent to her by a family that visited her farm this summer. And, said Sunny, she found a company in Canada that is selling a particular type of Chinese garlic called ‘Xian.’ It should be a very interesting harvest!

Upper Midwest garlic association event in Red Wing. Contributed photo

“I love eating garlic, so I started growing it,” said Heidi Morlock, who grows eight different varieties of garlic at her farm in Belle Plaine. Heidi grows seven varieties of hardneck garlic: German Extra Hardy, Russian Red, Chesnok Red, Bogotyr, Metechi, Georgian Fire, and Music. She also grows Inchelium Red, which is a softneck garlic. She says the hardneck varieties tend to store longer and have more intense flavor. They are also good choices for growing in northern climates, like Minnesota. Softneck garlic is generally grown in more temperate climates such as California or the Mediterranean. “The soft-necked varieties tend to be more mild-flavored, so they are good for salad dressings and eating raw,” said Heidi.

The hardneck varieties are her favorites. They are great for roasting, sautéing, and salsa, among other things. She and her husband make a lot of salsa, and they always press fresh garlic to use in it. Heidi also makes a garlic rhubarb jam, for which she uses the Porcelain type of hardneck garlic. “Porcelains, like Music and German Extra Hardy, have large cloves – so you can get more out of [the bulb] when making jam.” Heidi also pointed out that she enjoys the Russian Red for its flavor, but it doesn’t last as long as some other varieties. “So the Russian Red gets eaten first,” said Heidi. Alternatively, Chesnok Red lasts the longest, often lasting long enough that she is able to have fresh garlic into the spring.

Some of the great things about growing garlic are that “garlic doesn’t have a lot of pests – and you can save your own seeds,” said Heidi. But she also likes the fact that garlic is planted in the fall, and harvested in the summer. It is nice to have a crop that doesn’t have to be harvested at the same time as everything else. Heidi has been growing garlic for 17 years. She hopes that people will support local growers and seek them out at the Garlic Festival and other venues.

“People should really grow their own, even if they have a small space. It doesn’t take much room to grow garlic.” Heidi hopes that people will try different varieties, as well. There are so many different tastes – people should enjoy trying them.

Susan Johnson of Red Wing has been growing numerous varieties of garlic for many years. In the past she has grown as many as 77 varieties of garlic – partially because a few years ago, she inherited quite a few varieties from a friend who was getting out of growing garlic. She loves trying the different flavors, but realizes that growing so many varieties is a lot of work because they all have to be harvested separately, labeled and dried separately. This year, she is trying very hard to cut back, and is now down to about 58 varieties.

Susan has been growing garlic for over 30 years, starting out growing it in her backyard in Minneapolis. Once she moved to Red Wing, she began growing garlic in earnest. In past years, she has planted close to 5,000 garlic cloves, but this year she plans to plant only 2,500 to 2,800 cloves of garlic – again, trying to downsize her garlic-growing operation.

Susan’s husband helps in the planting by plotting out the rows for her and digging the holes, but she is on her own for harvesting. It is a big job, and Susan believes that reducing the number of cloves she grows will give her time to do other things in the summer besides harvesting garlic.

It has been a passion for her to grow garlic. In Red Wing, she has been able to grow garlic in a plot on her brother’s land, and has used his wonderful old barn to hang her garlic to dry. “I love that barn,” said Susan. “But anyone can grow garlic. You really don’t need a lot of space.” Susan hopes that more people will try their hand at growing and eating garlic. “It is a great plant for growing and for eating!”

“If you haven’t had Minnesota garlic – really fresh garlic – you haven’t really eaten garlic,” said Susan. The garlic that most people buy at the grocery store is – well, not that fresh, according to Susan. “Unless,” she says, “you are buying from a coop or a store that has a contract with the growers.”

An annual tradition at Susan’s house is a dinner with other garlic growers. She loves the recipes that people come up with, and the contests they have devised between themselves to try to figure out which garlic variety has been used for which dish.

Giving advice to new garlic growers, Susan said, “Don’t always think that the bigger the head, the better. There is plenty of smaller garlic that is really delicious.”

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