Thursday, September 11, 2014

Alaskans experiment with growing garlic

How does your garlic grow?

That’s what Tribes Extension Project Director and Educator Heidi Rader wanted to know. Rader, who works for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service and Tanana Chiefs Conference, sent a survey to growers around the state in late July.
Maggie Hallam of Cripple Creek Organics looks at her garlic crop.

“I needed to do a short YouTube video and I’ve been hearing a lot about garlic,” Rader said. “I don’t have a lot of information.” But due to the success of the survey, she has a lot more facts and figures now.

Nearly 50 people from Southeast to Galena completed the survey. Rader learned that garlic seems to be a relatively recent crop for Alaska. “Some had been growing garlic for five to 10 years but most had been for less than five. It’s a new trend.”

Rosie Creek Farm is one exception. “I have 13 years’ experience growing garlic commercially,” said Rosie Creek owner Mike Emers. “I plant 200 pounds every year with varying success. It is labor intensive and foot by foot not very profitable. Only certain varieties are worth growing.

“There is huge demand and we use it to attract customers to buy our other crops. We will continue to grow it because of its draw for customers.”

At Calypso Farm and Ecology Center, Susan Willsrud said garlic is great for personal use. She has noticed a huge market demand. “Garlic is a really fun crop because of the fall planting; it’s so nice to have a crop coming up in the early spring,” Willsrud said.

“In terms of a commercial crop, the cost to grow the crop is significantly higher than what it can be sold for, particularly because the average pounds yielded to pounds planted is way less than it is in other climates. In my opinion it makes a really suitable, wonderful crop for home consumption, but a questionable one for market farming.”

Seed garlic is expensive and is often sold for a similar or sometimes lower price per pound as a final product, Willsrud said. “I think most of us are really excited when it comes up and then when we get a harvest out of it,” she said. “So a farmer is likely to say something favorable because it's easy to forget how many pounds we had to buy, plant, tend, harvest and clean in order to get that crop. Overall, even with great market demand, it's a risky, low-value crop for the farmer.”

At the Alaska Botanical Garden in Anchorage, Executive Director Julianne McGuinness has been growing garlic for 15 years and has conducted many variety trials. “I definitely want to offer any encouragement I can for garlic as a productive crop for Alaska farms and gardens,” she said.

Rader, who also grows garlic at her own farm, explained that there is a bounty of varieties, with two subspecies, hard-necked and soft-necked. “The hard is better for Alaska,” Rader said. “That at least is a starting point.”

Some of the popular varieties in Alaska are Music, Siberian, Chesnook Red and German White.

Garlic is planted in the fall a week or two after the first killing frost and covered with mulch. “You fertilize it a little bit and harvest it the next summer,” Rader said. “It’s no harder to grow than onions; it’s similar, but you do it in the fall.”

Rader recommends trying a few varieties and note the survival rate, how big they grow and how many cloves are produced. Taste is of course another important factor. “Now is a good time to think about planting garlic in the Interior.

“It’s a fun thing to experiment with.”

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