A growing movement in the Garden State

Hoop house with bins of separated, labeled garlic varieties at Valley Fall Farm.
Photos by Tamara Scully.

Garlic may not be a major crop for New Jersey farms, but for a few select New Jersey growers, however, garlic growing has led to the formation of a loose cooperative, designed to bring farmers together to share information, equipment, labor and resources and to promote garlic consumption in New Jersey. A Sustainable Agricultural Research and Education Grant (SARE) was awarded to the group in 2002, and Garden State Garlic Growers (GSGG) has since elevated the Garden State’s garlic crop into a recognizable presence with an in-demand, high-value product.

Rich Sisti, who farms at his Catalpa Ridge Farm in Sussex County, was one of the founding growers of GSGG. The nonprofit, formed in conjunction with nearby Warren County grower Roman Osadca of Valley Fall Farm, received an additional SARE grant in 2003 to assist with the promotion and marketing of garlic.

“Farmers get together to pool their resources to plant the garlic and harvest the garlic,” Sisti said of the original concept for GSGG. Attracting experts to share their knowledge of growing, selling and utilizing the myriad varieties was another objective of the group. Their mission was to share knowledge of garlic varieties, problems, and cultural methods, and to bypass the pitfalls of working in isolation, while promoting the eating and growing of good garlic. At first, the farmers did labor together and share planting equipment, but the group soon developed its focus into an educational and marketing powerhouse. These two northern New Jersey growers are credited with establishing a northern New Jersey garlic craze, including an annual festival, the Garden State Garlic Gathering, that not only provides marketing opportunities for garlic sales, but presents educational seminars on garlic growing, explores rare varieties, promotes value-added garlic vinegars and jellies, braids and wreaths, and provides recipes for farmer and food connoisseur alike.

Specialty crop

“Garden State Garlic works to promote and educate the public to grow and eat terrific-tasting, heirloom gourmet varieties of garlic,” Osadca said. A grower for over 25 years, Osadca grows over 200 varieties of garlic from all over the world, and commands up to $15 per pound for his crop. He trials varieties from all over the world and finds that most do well in New Jersey, although some warmer-climate garlics are not able to withstand the winter freeze.

Two distinct types of garlic, the hardneck and the softneck, both come in a myriad of varieties, a handful of which Osadca grows in bulk. Osadca harvests between 1,000 and 3,000 pounds of these popular varieties each season, with no difficulty selling out each harvest. He maintains a minimum of 1,000 pounds of assorted varieties for winter sales, which last through March for the hardneck varieties. Softnecks, which store much better, have a yearlong shelf life if properly dried, cured and stored.

Transylvania and Siciliano are two softneck types Osadca grows in bulk, while Music, German White, Spanish Roja and Ukrainian Red are the hardnecks. The rest of Osadca’s garlic varieties are grown in amounts of five or 10 pounds apiece, and are rare, specialty ethnic varieties from around the world.

Hardneck varieties come in five distinct families, while softnecks have two families. Each family has specific characteristics related to clove size and number, and wrapper characteristics. Softnecks have an abundance of cloves in layers, while hardnecks have fewer cloves and less protective wrappers.

“A complete garlic grower grows both,” Osadca said of the hard and softneck varieties, although they require slightly different care. Typically, grocery store garlic is of the softneck type, and is primarily grown in China, which is by far the world’s largest grower of garlic. Most processed garlic products in the commercial sector are made from Chinese garlic, which is notorious for being grown with massive amounts of chemicals, Osadca said.

Bins of cleaned, dried and cured garlic await sale at Valley Fall Farm.

Sisti grows about 45 varieties each season, although Italian Purple and German White are the ones most in demand from customers, he said.

While Osadca and Sisti are both chemical-free growers, they are not certified organic. Neighbor Les Guile, however, is certified and offers about seven varieties of garlic on his small, diverse Walnut Grove Farm. These three growers represent the face of garlic in northern New Jersey and are the go-to experts for other growers.

Cultivation

Garlic is planted in October and November in New Jersey, where the bulbs get a head start on growth up until the ground freezes, typically sometime in late December. Come spring, the bulbs have already established a healthy root system and are ready to put energy into growing in size.

Garlic is started from cloves, not from seed. “Seed garlic” refers to cloves that are planted for the next season’s harvest. By planting full cloves from a mature bulb, growers have sizable bulbs for harvest the next season. Ideally, bulbs are two or more inches in size, both for planting purposes and for consumption.

While mechanical planting is possible, Osadca has given it up for hand planting. In the past, he has cultivated long rows of garlic, discing the rows and using a modified corn planter to plant eight acres, with 30 inches between rows. This method was used for several seasons and also allows for mechanical harvesting. Osadca, however, now plants the same quantity of garlic by hand, in raised beds, and has done so for the past six years.

Osadca planted 1,900 pounds of garlic in 2009, which yielded 11,000 pounds during the July 2010 harvest. These bulbs were planted in raised beds, about 10 inches between rows, with three rows per bed. The beds are covered with black plastic mulch, and irrigation drip tape is laid. Planted by hand into holes he hand-cuts in the plastic, the close spacing allows for “a lot of garlic in a given area” and the plastic minimizes weeds. Garlic is planted two inches deep, about six inches apart, in a good, organic loam with no rocks. It requires a sunny location that does not get too wet.

“Garlic does not like weeds,” Osadca emphasized, so finding a method of planting which eliminates the potential for much weed growth is the key to natural garlic growing. Garlic also needs adequate moisture, but does not like wet feet.

Sisti’s latest crop was planted by 25 people, who needed two hours to plant the 11,000 cloves last season, by hand, into three 4-foot-by-200-foot rows.

In 2009, extremely wet conditions proved challenging, as wet and damp conditions hinder growth and lead to disease. Sisti harvested three weeks early; the extremely wet weather meant some sacrifices.

“It was a choice of either small garlic or no garlic,” he explained. The 2010 season has been much drier, and the yield should be back to normal.

Guile also found that too much rain was an issue for the 2009 harvest, where late blight was common in the area. Garlic is susceptible, but while he had no blight issues, the rain made the season challenging. Viruses and rot, along with onion maggot, are some typical challenges with garlic. Clean cultivation, appropriate levels of moisture and crop rotation are the essential means of control. Rotating fields every two to three years, and not replanting in garlic or related plants for several growing seasons, helps to break any disease cycle.

Summer harvest

Hardneck garlics send up a hard center stalk in early June, which then develops curls. This is the garlic scape, and it should be removed to prevent energy from being taken from bulb development, Osadca said. The scape is an edible product itself and can be harvested and sold. If left on, the scape forms bulbils, which are the reproductive part of the plant, containing a dozen to hundreds of small, miniature cloves. Generally, softnecks do not generate scapes.

Osadca with bins of uncleaned garlic, drying in a hoop house.
Farmer Roman Osadca in his drying hoop house, showing hardneck garlic with an uncut scape.

“Scapes should be trimmed when they make the first curl,” Guile advised, or the energy to the bulb is greatly decreased. Although bulbils can be planted and can be used to break an existing disease cycle, it is a long process, Guile said.

Planting bulbils, rather than planting from mature cloves, “breaks contact with the disease-bearing parts of the plant.” However, it will take several seasons to produce a mature bulb, which can then be used as seed garlic.

Bulb growth naturally stops in response to the changes in daylight, and once the days peak and wane in June, the bulbs stop growing. Several weeks of drying down are needed before the bulbs are dug, which typically occurs here in New Jersey in July. Lately, Guile said, the harvest has occurred in early July, while traditionally it has not happened until mid-July. The garlic must be harvested before the plant gets too dry, or the protective wrappers come off, the garlic does not store as well, and is not as attractive to consumers.

Garlic can be dug, or sometimes safely pulled, depending on variety. Once gathered, the garlic must be dried. On a small scale, the garlic can be hung to dry. Softneck garlic can be braided. With large quantities, the method is to cut the stalks to four inches in the field, then dry the bulbs in a shed or hoop house, on drying racks of hardware cloth, protected from the sun, and with adequate ventilation provided by fans.

“Keep the airflow going,” Guile said, as each bulb’s moisture content must be decreased from about 70 percent to 10 percent to complete the drying and curing successfully.

Proper drying allows the skins surrounding the cloves to protect the garlic until it is ready for use. Properly dried skins peel off easily. Moist garlic peels very poorly. This process also refines the flavor of the garlic, which develops its subtlety after several months’ time. When first harvested, garlic can be consumed young and is “an experience not to miss,” Osadca said, but green garlic sales are not typical.

Oscada’s hoop house is covered in a heavy-duty opaque fabric and has multiple layers of drying racks, where carefully labeled batches of bulbs await cleaning. Bulbs are piled about 10 inches deep, and three large fans move the air throughout the day to prevent mold growth and bulb spoilage. Beginning three to four weeks after the harvest, the bulbs are cleaned of dirt and debris, and stems are cut down to an inch or so in size. By October, bulbs are moved into a cool, dry storage area with low humidity and a stable temperature, Osadca said. Planting for the next season’s harvest begins, using the seed garlic from this year’s crop.

Promotion, marketing and sales

The Garden State Garlic Gathering is the main promotional sales venue for the growers, who invite growers from nearby states to also sell their wares. The event has grown each year, attracting garlic lovers and the curious to the small town of Lafayette. Other area events promote tomato tasting, and as garlic is naturally paired with tomatoes, these events allow Garden State Garlic to team up for sales and educational purposes.

Garlic braids and wreaths are value-added products that Garden State Garlic has promoted in conjunction with Rutgers Cooperative Extension and the Master Gardeners Program. Another important event for the group has been the display of garlic at the Sussex County Farm and Horse Show, which is also the New Jersey State Fair. This year, Osadca had over 100 varieties of garlic on display. He is a multiple blue ribbon winner for many years running.

“I love entering garlic at the state fair, to promote people knowing that there are a lot of garlics out there,” Osadca said. “It’s nice being recognized for doing a positive, environmentally friendly, beneficial form of agriculture.”

Direct-to-consumer sales on the farm are also a primary method of selling, and each farm has their own niche. Sisti’s Catalpa Ridge has a 150-member Community Supported Agriculture model, and garlic is a part of the shares. Guile has a reputation for premier certified organic products in the area and has a weekends-only farm-stand on-site. Osadca does mail order, taking orders and shipping around the country, to consumers, restaurant owners and chefs, and to other farmers for seed. He also delivers locally to restaurants and has consumers who shop on-farm.

Garden State garlic growers may be few in number, and the overall yield may not compare to states with large commercial-scale farms, yet these small farmers have created a niche market and have seen increasing demand for their product. Through cooperative measures, New Jersey garlic has become a specialty product with solid, increasing demand and its own large-scale event.

More Information

  • Rich Sisti, Catalpa Ridge Farm, 973-209-4903
  • Roman Osadca, Valley Fall Farm, 908-852-7362
  • Les Guile, Walnut Grove Farm, 973-383-5029

The author is a new freelance contributor based in New Jersey.