Charlie M. Holmes
For someone whose only interaction with garlic has been with the garlic that can be bought at a grocery store, it’s easy to think there’s not much to it. Think again. There are people among us who know better.
“There’s kind of a cult following with garlic growers and garlic lovers,” Adyia Vargha explained. “They go everywhere and get all the information they can.”
Vargha was working the information booth Saturday at the Susquehanna Valley Garlic Festival at Wood Bull Antiques in Milford. Her father, Vali, helped start the festival 12 years ago.
“There were a lot of little growers that really needed a place to sell their garlics,” Vali said “Bill Powers, he started small, but because he had a place to sell, he’s getting bigger and bigger. People kind of grew (their business) locally.”
Garlic is starting to become really important in the economic world of farming, according to the Capital District Cornell Cooperative Extension Vegetable Specialist on Garlic, Crystal Stewart.
“Garlic’s worth about $20 million in New York state right now,” Stewart said. “It’s a pretty significant crop, about 300 acres and $20 million were the last census numbers.”
Stewart went on to say that New York is the fifth largest producer of garlic in the country. California is No. 1, but the variety of garlic California produces does not do well in the New York environment.
“The nice thing about New York is there’s 11 main varieties of garlic,” Stewart said. “(The Susquehanna Valley Garlic Festival has a]) really great showing of quite a few of those. We have a lot of diversity, much more than you could ever find in a grocery store.”
German White is the No. 1 variety of garlic grown in New York state.
“The other nice thing is that if I grow German White and you grow German White they might taste totally different because garlic really draws on the soil,” Stewart added. “It’s really a local food. It’s got this ability to change depending on where you grow it and how you grow it. People will pick favorite growers, and they will really stay with that person because the garlic they grow really has a unique taste and quality you couldn’t get anywhere else.”
For those interested in growing garlic Stewart recommends going to a festival like the Susquehanna Valley Garlic Festival to buy the seed.
“The first question to ask is if its been tested,” Stewart said. “If you’re going to buy seed you want garlic that has been tested clean.”
Garlic doesn’t have many pests, but the biggest one is the nematode, a microscopic worm. Even though people can’t see nematodes, the garlic the worm infects looks different.
“Where the roots are should be nice and healthy. You can see it’s kind of cracking and pulling away from the base,” Stewart said, pointing to some garlic she had brought that had been infected with nematodes. “And if you look at the color of this, it’s kind of yellow compared to this, which doesn’t have any nematodes. It’s quite white.”
Stewart says that while it’s safe to eat garlic infected with nematodes, it’s better not to grow garlic infected with the worm because in the right conditions the nematodes can cause the garlic to break down in the soil.
Another thing to do when looking for seed is to feel the garlic.
“The most common thing we see is fusarium,” Stewart said. “When you take a whole bulb you can usually feel a dent in it, and when you pull that away, you see a little spot in the bulb. If you see something like that, what you want to do is cut that piece off, eat the rest of the garlic, it’s totally fine, but don’t plant that because the garlic that grows from that bulb could have fusarium, too.”
Garlic is planted in October when daytime temperatures are in the 50s and 60s and some frosts are occurring at night. It comes up in March and is usually harvested in early July. Stewart says that garlic is a low maintenance crop, but that people new to growing it should start with just a pound or two of seed.
Besides the talks Stewart gave on “Getting Your Garlic on the Right Foot” and “The Garlic Industry of New York State,” the Susquehanna Valley Garlic Festival also offered seminars titled “Know Your Garlic Varieties” and “Have Fun with Braiding.”
“The trick to braiding garlic is to generally do it in July/August when the garlic is still drying,” Lucia Philips of Dismal in Garlic pointed out. “You do it early in the morning when the dew is on it.”
Braiding is mainly done for storage purposes.
“It holds the moisture in, and it helps it stay fresh longer,” Philips said. “Plus it makes it easier to carry.”
Philips says finding the right level of dryness is crucial.
“If it’s too wet it will mold, and if it’s too dry it will break,” Philips stated.
The Susquehanna Valley Garlic Festival drew in people from a wide area.
“I came all the way from Binghamton for a T-shirt and the garlic,” Karen Dickerson said. “We do the garlic fest at the civic center in Binghamton. We go to that and love it. We had garlic ice cream for the first time this year. It was great!”
The Susquehanna Valley Garlic Festival was offering up garlic chocolate chip cookies.
“They’re my favorite,” Vargha confessed. “I usually get my own batch on the side. You don’t taste the garlic until afterward.”
She says a lot of people come to the Susquehanna Valley Garlic Festival to hang out.
“They come enjoy the music. They come to buy their year’s supply of garlic. They come enjoy the garlic food. We try to put the garlic in wherever we can,” Vargha explained with a laugh. “And then on their way out, they stop at the information table to get a mint, so when they go back into the real world they’re not totally offensive.”