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September 26, 2013

Garlic Festival crowded with people, bulbs

By Katharine Medina Contributing Writer
Cooperstown Crier

---- — There wasn’t any paparazzi at the 13th Annual Susquehanna Valley Garlic Festival in Milford on Saturday, but the bulbs sure were flashing, garlic bulbs that is. 

A good sized crowd showed up early, rewarded by copious amounts of garlic bulbs, garlic ropes, garlic dips, and garlic cheeses, all displayed by growers eager to share their harvesting experience and knowledge. 

Live blue grass music provided a fitting background for the affair as attendees split their time between buying, learning and eating. 

Lured to the festival by face painting and games, children overcame their initial uncertainty of the celebrated vegetable and embraced the garlic, tasting different types of raw cloves, although Colin Friel, an eight-year old from Ridgefield Park, N.J. was not a big fan, emphatically proclaiming, “I didn’t like the garlic, but I did like the cheese.”  

His sister Jordan did enjoy the garlic, but, mostly the family fun, she said. 

“This festival has a cozy relaxed atmosphere”, says Ken Gies, long time grower and participant in the festival. “It’s more intimate than the big Saugerties Festival.” 

In addition to garlic, other organic products including tee shirts and aprons were offered for purchase.

Most of the growers said they favor the hardier, and better suited to the upstate climate, long necked bulbs over the soft necked variety. Siberian garlic is acknowledged to be one of the best performing garlic bulbs, and the easiest to grow. There are many sub divisions, but about seven varieties exist in New York. 

According to the Cornell Cooperative Extension web site, “garlic production has increased significantly in New York over the last few decades, and garlic is now considered to be an important niche crop.” 

For example, 1992, only 11 acres of garlic were reported in New York, but by 1997 the number grew to 153 acres and by 2007 it again doubled to 306 acres. Garlic is currently estimated to be a $20 million dollar crop. New York is the fifth largest garlic producing state in the country, and ten percent of all New York vegetable farms report growing garlic, a higher percentage of growers than for broccoli, cabbage, carrots, lettuce, or onions. 

Several other varieties of garlic work well with the local climate and soil, including the German White, which is a great all -purpose garlic, and the Spanish Roja, which is spicy when raw.

Growing garlic is relatively easy, with clean bulbs, shallow plantings and as long as there isn’t too much rain. 

“Garlic does not like that”, Gies said. 

October, when the daytime temperatures are in the 50’s and 60’s, is the best time to plant, he said. Signs of life arrive in March. Harvest is early, usually by July.

Lucia Phillips from the Dismal Inn Sugar Company in Hartwick, said she didn’t know much about garlic when she met her husband, Bruce. He started out producing maple syrup, but now he and Lucia have made garlic a top crop. They grew 4500 bulbs last year. “Now it’s become my passion,” she said. 

The proof was evident in the garlic ropes hanging all around her tent as well as one around her neck. Although time consuming to make, it takes her 2-3 weeks to finish one crop’s worth, she said the ropes keep the garlic longer, holding the moisture in, so the rope is useful and portable. 

Although many growers at the festival complained of a lackluster growing season this year, due to all the rain, Philips said they were lucky in that they grow their garlic on a hillside, which helped shield their crop. 

The Harrison Creek Farm’s tent proved to be a real lesson in both garlic and the event. 

“I first grew garlic in 1989”, owner Mark Rowley said while standing among huge boxes of garlic cloves, “until then, I thought it was all the same.”

Now a convert to the taste of fresh grown garlic, he attributes his start and success in part, to his travel around the Utica area while working for Verizon. Meeting and dining with immigrants from all over, especially Bosnia and Croatia, gave him ample opportunity to learn first hand the impact different types of fresh grown garlic had on cooking among those who appreciated and desired the ingredient. 

Rowley, along with Vinnie Avanzato founded the festival 13 years ago. Both thought it would provide growers like themselves a great venue to educate and sell their product to the local community. Avanzato still supplies his own restaurant, Stella Luna in Oneonta, with bulbs. After supplying the Plaza Hotel in New York City for years, Rowley said he is content to grow garlic and chair the festival.

Gies, owner of The Pasture Farm along with his wife Jill, shared his vast experience in the garlic information tent. Refusing the title of garlic guru, Gies said, “a litany of errors has made me an expert.”  

Ten years ago, encouraged by a friend to try his hand at garlic, Gies planted some bulbs. Months later, with no tending in the meantime, he watched his friend’s “eyes pop out of his head” while he pulled his first bulb. Sometimes the only thing a garlic grower has to know is when to harvest. Gies notes it’s time to pull when 2 or 3 leaves are turning brown at the bottom and the scape is standing up. 

One of the biggest mistakes made, according to Gies, is planting garlic deep in clay soil.

Gies said he remembers being unwilling to sell one crop’s pathogen ridden bulbs for seed, knowing the growth would be compromised. A stubborn farmer within the community insisted he needed the seeds vowing he would exchange his secret for saving them to Gies for the right to buy. The secret was 80 proof vodka. Apparently soaking the bulbs in the stuff before planting kills the pathogens.  

Garlic offers health benefits galore, ranging from treating skin infections, to reducing cholesterol. It’s use has been linked to positive effects on a myriad of diseases, including diabetes, cancer and combating allergies. Common lore has even stated that garlic in your spaghetti is an aphrodisiac, stirring up passions due to increased circulation.

For more information about next year’s event, please contact