Saturday, September 3, 2011

Garlicky in Gormley

"What garlic is to food, insanity is to art"
Augustus Saint Gaudens

There is a lovely saying that goes "tickle the earth with a hoe and she laughs with a harvest".

Most years it holds up; I'm constantly humbled by the bounty we harvest every year.

In other years, you've got to do a whole lot of tickling to even get a grin out of 'ol mother earth. Take garlic for instance:

Garlic is extremely labor intensive. Because it is planted in the fall, it's the first crop out of the blocks in the spring. Those green shoots usually appear just after the frost goes out of the ground.

The first weeds start to appear about 18 seconds later. Garlic has many virtues, but being competitive against weeds is not one of them. Picture a seniors' lawn bowling club against the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl and you have some idea.

In addition to weeding, there is also time spent on pulling scapes (removing the seed heads for a bigger bulb), harvesting, putting on racks to dry, cutting off tops and cleaning. It is by far and away the most costly crop for us to produce on a per plant basis.

Although I've been growing sweet corn since the early 70's; garlic is new to my farming repetoire; we harvested our first crop in 2008.

In 2008 and 2009, there was a huge amount of Chinese garlic dumped into Canadian and American markets, despite restrictive tariffs. A price of 9 large offshore bulbs for $1.00 sticks in my mind, at a time when we charged $1.00 for a single large, freshly harvested bulb.

The outcome, and of course the outrage at our price, was predictable and unpleasant for us. Although we had a relatively small crop in 2008, it took all season to sell it, despite its excellent quality. People constantly reminded us how cheap garlic was in the supermarkets.

In late 2008, the mainstream media released several articles about the dubious safety and quality of Chinese garlic. (Rather than belabor the point here, check out the "Chowhound " website, among others, for more details.)

By the time our 2009 crop came off, the word was starting to get out; fresh local garlic will trump dried up, bleached imported garlic any day. More media attention was paid to the cancer-fighting potential of garlic.

Blame it on beginner's luck; our 2009 crop quality was again excellent. Customers began to remark on the juiciness and pungency of our newly harvested crop rather than kvetching about the price. Some people even bought 4 or 5 bulbs at a time.

We sold out by mid-September and had a few people to call if we decided to sell off any of our planting stock.

By 2010, everyone and their cat knew about Ontario garlic; it was like a gold rush. The combination of media attention to garlic, the "buy local" campaign and the realization that Ontario actually produced delicious garlic, in addition to a shortage of both local and imported garlic, created a perfect storm of a sellers' market.

People that had complained about our price in 2008 were now buying garlic by the dozen, despite the higher prices. 2010 was about as close as we'll ever get to an ideal crop year in this area; the quality was phenomenal.

We sold out by the third week of August and had a long list of people to call if we found any more.

Our 2011 crop is by far and away our best quality yet. Reasons why?

. The fall/winter of 2010-2011 had lots of snow cover to minimize the amount of garlic lost to winterkill, and allow root growth until late in the fall.

.That wet spring that had us all cursing was a blessing for the already-out-of-the-blocks garlic; it sized up magnificently.

.The July harvest saw bone dry conditions: perfect for pungency and storage life.

It amazes me that, in 3 short years,we have gone from a lose-lose to a win-win proposition with this crop. My hat is off to the "Good things grow in Ontario" folks and to our many fine customers who stood by us and made growing garlic such a delight.

"No one is indifferent to garlic. People either love it or hate it, and most good cooks seem to belong in the first group."
Faye Levy


Garlicky Guy

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Is Your Farm Organic?

"If it isn't Scottish; it's crap!"
Mike Meyers, as owner of a Scottish import shop on a "Saturday Night Live" skit

I'll begin with a word from Michael Pollen, an author and unabashed organic proponent, who wrote "The Omnivore's Dilemma". If you haven't read it , and you're interested if food and what we eat, it's a great read.

This quote comes from his followup book, "In Defence Of Food; An Eater's Manifesto"

"Eat Well Grown Food From Healthy Soils....It is true that food certified organic is usually grown in relatively healthy soils, yet there are exceptional farmers and ranchers in America who for one reason or another are not certified organic and the food they grow should not be overlooked. Organic is important, but it's not the last word on how to grow food well."

Certainly, the connection between healthy food and healthy soil is irrefutable; how then can a conventional farm achieve that healthy soil that is the cornerstone of organic agriculture?

A large part of the answer is crop rotation, the practice of growing different crops on the same piece of land,as opposed to monoculture; where only a single crop is grown year after year.

In any given year, our farm acreage is planted as follows:

Year 1. Soybeans.
Year 2. Wheat (straw chopped and returned to soil) with red clover under seeded .
Year 3. Red Clover (clipped twice and then plowed )
Year 4. Vegetables, followed by Year 1,2 etc.

We are in the extremely fortunate position of farming enough of a land base to allow us to rotate our crops in this manner for the past 30 years. Years 2 and 3 are the foundation of our healthy soils: we have seen an increase in organic matter and a drastically reduced need for purchased nitrogen fertilizer.( I'll save the lesson on how clover does this for another time.) We soil test religiously and pay close attention to fertility trends and trace elements.

It also allows us to use fewer pesticides, as it is more difficult for insects,weeds and plant diseases to establish themselves on different host crops from one year to the next.

In other words, we try and maintain natural processes to the very best of our abilities. Our vegetable varieties are chosen for taste rather than yield or shipping abilities; picked fresh daily and sold at the height of their flavor and presumably, nutrition.

The organic camp maintains that food grown organically is more nutritious than conventionally grown food, and yet current unbiased university research suggests otherwise: they are the same.

Soil scientists and nutritionists would surely agree that we have really only just begun to scratch the surface of understanding the complex relationships between the thousands of elements that make up soil.

Putting the organic vs.conventional argument aside for a moment, I think common sense would argue that a cauliflower from a field that has grown only cauliflower (or other cole crops) for the last 20 years is less nutritious than one grown in a crop rotation, planted every fourth year .

Different crops use different elements in varying quantities and, conversely, different crops add different elements (besides the basic nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium.)

Surely, growing the same crop year after year, that is pulling the same fertility out of the soil is creating a crop that is less nutritious. Someday, we will understand the interplay and crop use of different major and minor soil nutrients and be able to make more informed nutritional comparisons.

In the meantime, the question that concerned consumers need to ask is not "is it organic?" but rather "is it nutritious?". That last sentence is a direct quote from Eliot Coleman, an widely respected American organic farmer and author.

Given that one of the strongest drivers for the purchase of organic products is the perception that they are more nutritious and healthier, I think that it is high time that consumers who genuinely care about their food started to ask farmers other questions besides,"is your farm organic?"

How about: " What crops do you rotate your fields to?"
Any responsible grower would be delighted to share this knowledge with you; it's something that we're all passionate about.

How about: "Did you grow this on your farm?"
You might be surprised. A straw hat and a pickup truck doesn't necessarily make a farmer.

How about: "What was this crop sprayed with?"
Food safety and nutrition go hand and hand. In 2007 (a dry year) we didn't have to spray our tomatoes at all. In 2010 (a reasonably wet year) we are forced to spray for late blight to get a crop. My organic grower friends were wiped out. I understand their position,but I can't afford to not have tomatoes on our farm. Google "LD 50" and find out how benign some of those chemicals that organic farmers are allowed to use really are.

Finally, take a deep breath and realize that we're all in this together.

There are many good stewards of the land on this earth (kindly allow me to be immodest enough to include myself.) Green manure, cover crops, soil tilth are among our earthly (pardon the pun) delights. They make our job easier,our crops better and your food more nutritious.

We're not trying to poison you or ourselves; we are trying to do something that we love in a responsible fashion. When we open a roadside market selling our own crops , we're like a cook laying on a great meal: we love doing it and we love hearing back from you that you appreciate us for it.

" Soil is the tablecloth under the banquet of civilization"

Steven Stoll, Larding the Lean earth (2002)