A Year of Idaho Food collaboration between the Boise Weekly and Boise State Public Radio
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In his book, A Garlic Testament, Stanley Crawford writes, “If you grow good garlic, people will love you for it.”
That’s surely true, but here in Southern Idaho, the space between the garlic growing and the love is littered with complexity.
Let’s say you’re a home gardener: It’s late fall–perfect garlic-planting season–but you haven’t found the time to hit your favorite nursery. Instead, you grab a fat head of garlic from the supermarket, break it up into cloves and plant those cloves–not in the pasta sauce for which they were intended, but in your garden.
What you’ve just unwittingly done, according to the Idaho State Department of Agriculture, is put the state’s $55 million onion industry at risk–and potentially cursed your own garden to a half century of white rot disease.
White rot is a vicious little fungus that can hitch a ride on seemingly untainted garlic, but once planted in the ground, that bad seed will turn the onion, garlic and other allium varieties in the near vicinity to mush.
In the late 1980s, a commercial Idaho garlic grower came down with “a big infestation of the stuff,” according to the ISDA’s Mike Cooper.
“Once it gets in a field or a garden, you’ve got it almost indefinitely,” Cooper said. “The more you grow onions or garlic in the field, the more the inoculate builds up, and it gets worse and worse.”
The only thing a gardener or farmer can do once the curse has been cast is give up growing alliums.
That ’80s outbreak understandably alarmed Idaho’s influential onion industry, which ranks fourth in the nation for onion production. It called for, and received, a white rot quarantine zone in Southern Idaho, where 9,000 acres of Idaho’s onion fields are located. Although the rule had no regulatory power over garlic shipped to stores as food (much of which comes from China), the quarantine dropped a thick curtain of bureaucracy over garlic destined to be planted in the ground as seed (individual cloves of garlic can either be eaten as “food” or planted as “seed”). All seed garlic growers in the Southern Idaho quarantine zone must now be inspected and certified, and all the seed garlic grown outside the zone is rigorously tested for disease before it’s allowed into the zone.
Quarantine zones are a common method of insulating specific crops from diseases and pests, and no one I spoke to disputed the threat posed by white rot or the need for a quarantine zone–Washington also has its own white rot quarantine zone. But several Southern Idaho farmers and garlic retailers told me the quarantine had also stifled the growth of Idaho’s garlic industry.
Within Southern Idaho’s quarantine zone, only one garlic seed company has flourished: My Dad’s Garlic in Rupert. Every clove of Idaho garlic in every Southern Idaho nursery, and every clove bought by fellow Southern Idaho farmers and planted in their own fields likely came from stock supplied by My Dad’s Garlic.
“As far as I know, we’re the only certified garlic seed grower in this quarantine area,” My Dad’s owner Philip Webb said.
“We’ve got seven different varieties at this point,” Webb said of the 5-year-old seed garlic business that he and his wife bought from the previous grower, and named after his wife’s garlic-growing father.
The ISDA comes out three times a year to inspect Webb’s farm for white rot, but despite the close scrutiny, Webb said he has been able to expand from one-quarter acre to four.
“We’ve been selling out of seed every year,” he said.
And yet, Webb suggested, the opportunities for other garlic growers is limited.
“It’s just a very small niche market,” he said. “It’s very, very labor-intensive. All the hand-planting and hand-digging and laying it out on shelves to dry, then cleaning, grading, bagging–it takes quite a few people just for a few acres to get all that done. And people don’t realize sometimes how labor-intensive that is.”
Fledgling garlic farmer Justin Moore agreed.
“Yeah, it’s all a pain in the butt,” he said on a recent October day as he prepared to plant thousands of cloves of certified garlic in a plot near Boise.
All of Moore’s crop was grown from 40 pounds of garlic he purchased from Webb in 2010, planted last fall, then harvested early this summer.
“It’s not like you buy the seed, throw it in the ground and pick it,” Moore said. “You have to dry it all down perfectly, grade it, and then you have to break apart every single garlic head into individual cloves.”
It took Moore all the previous week to do just that and left his thumbs raw.
“Wake up 7 a.m., bust garlic,” he said. “Come home [from a day of farming], sit down, bust garlic.”
New garlic farmers must repeat those steps through several growing seasons–harvesting a bulb of 10 or 12 cloves for each clove of garlic originally planted–before they’ve built up enough seed stock to sell commercially. Moore figured he’s still a harvest or two away from a real payoff.
And yet Moore, a self-confessed garlic nerd who admitted to carrying cloves around in his pockets as snacks, was undaunted.
“I just think garlic is one of the most wonderful plants that you can actually grow,” he said as he pulled boxes of parchment-colored cloves out of his truck. “And I think there’s plenty of room for more than one grower here. You go anywhere else in this country and there’s so many garlic farms in little, concentrated areas.”
In Vermont, where Moore is from, he said a lot of his friends grow seed garlic within a few miles of each other. Moore is growing his garlic organically, a first in Southern Idaho’s quarantine zone, and he hopes to bring in new varieties not yet available in the area.
“There’s something like 300 known cultivars of garlic in the world,” he said, “and a lot of places grow tons of varieties.”
To bring any of those varieties into the quarantine zone, a grower must first send every single clove of outsourced garlic to the University of Idaho’s Potato Tissue Culture Lab in Moscow, where it is prodded and probed for white rot at a cost of $1 or more per clove.
Of those cloves, 40 to 50 percent “wash out” during the testing process, according to Cooper, either because of disease detection or the damage they suffer from the test itself. The lab then sends the surviving and now-certified garlic back to the farmer.
Lori Bevan–one of seven growers Cooper said who have filed the paperwork necessary to start a seed garlic business in the quarantine zone–sent six new garlic varieties to the Moscow lab for testing. She said the lab charged $2 a clove, and of those it certified and shipped back to her, half died once she planted them.
“I heard another farmer went through the same process and lost a lot of his as well,” Bevan said with a sigh.
On a blustery late fall day, Bevan said she’d often been frustrated by the lack of variety and limited quantities of garlic available to farmers in the Treasure Valley and was convinced that Southern Idaho needed more garlic growers–but she also seemed a little discouraged by both the quarantine’s complexities and garlic’s natural proclivities. Like fellow garlic growing newbie Moore, Bevan figured it would take her another two years of planting, growing, harvesting, drying, busting down heads and then planting cloves again before she’d have enough garlic to sell commercially.
For a new garlic farmer, the time it takes to yield a garlic crop must seem endless–add on a quarantine zone and that’s probably why Cooper said most of those who apply for certification don’t make it.
“It follows that you ought not to grow garlic unless you are willing to let it make you as patient as it needs for its purposes,” Crawford wrote in A Garlic Testament. “One of the singular characteristics of garlic is that it makes you wait.”
Guy Hand is a writer, public radio producer and photographer specializing in food and agriculture.