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The scent of Garlic

The cook’s best tool has new organic roots in Hood River

September 7, 2005

Nine years ago, Eric Hixson knew next to nothing about garlic. Now he’s fully conversant about softnecks, hardnecks, clove size, and which varieties are prized for size, looks and flavor.

Hixson and Terri Browne Hixon bought two and a half acres of cow pasture in the Rockford area of Hood River in 1996. They moved onto the property with a 15-foot travel trailer, then in 2002-03 built a house.

“When we bought the house there was nothing here,” Eric says. “We thought about putting in echinacea or ginseng, but there really wasn’t enough room for echinacea and ginseng seemed a little questionable.”

The idea of growing garlic came from a guy Eric knows in Washington who has a garlic farm. The Hixons bought 20 pounds of garlic from him and set out to try their hand.

“I was talking to John down at John’s Equipment Repair, and when I told him I was going to grow garlic, he said, ‘You’ll never be able to grow anything in this rocky soil,’” Hixson recalls.

The area is called Rockford for a reason: The soil, he says, is clay loam, and full of rocks. He had to extract many rocks — which he used to build rock walls — before he could work and amend the soil. With a rototiller and the help of many friends, two 100-foot rows of earth were prepared, and the 20 pounds of garlic planted.

Through the years the Hixsons havelearned many lessons through trial and error, and one of the first was that, if you’re growing for size, garlic needs a looser soil. Even without the rocks and despite its history as a cow pasture, the soil needed some help.

“I had a couple of years where I was growing ‘popcorn garlic,’ I called it,” he says. “The clay soil makes it hard to get much size.”

Size matters, to garlic growers. The bigger the seed (clove), the bigger the garlic bulb, and the bigger the garlic bulb, the fewer — and larger — cloves it will contain. Since Hixsons are growing garlic for seed, he wants the cloves to be as large as possible.

So in the seven years that they have been working the field, Eric figures they have added tons of organic material such as buckwheat, clover, seedless straw, compost, and decomposed leaves. And from day one, everything done to the land has been organic. Hood River Garlic was certified by the Oregon Tilth in 2002.

Eric and Terri started out with four varieties of garlic. The 20 pounds they planted yielded about 150 pounds of seed garlic. The next year they planted about 100 pounds, and harvested 700. After buying a tractor, Eric was able to prepare more soil and now the farm has about a half acre of garlic bed.

“Now we plant about 500 pounds, which produced about 3,300 pounds of garlic,” Eric says. “The general rule of thumb is you can expect to get seven times the weight you plant. Some varieties will produce even more, depending on the size.”

The couple has also experimented with different varieties. From the original four varieties, they expanded to as many as 30, and have now narrowed it down to about 18.

“This was a weird year — one variety produced 15 times the amount, and one didn’t come up at all,” Eric says. “The ones that are the most prized in the market are the toughest ones to grow. And they don’t store as well, but they have the flavor!”

The garlic farm is a side job for Eric; his “day job” is as a carpenter. The half acre he’s been tending is about all he can handle on his own, and that’s with lots of help from friends and family. He figures of the two and a half acres he owns, the maximum he could dedicate to garlic would be about 1 1/2 acres. But then he would need to quit his job.

The target market for Hood River Garlic is home gardeners, since they are growing seed garlic, but there are also a few vendors who carry their product, including Rosauers and Mother’s Market in Hood River.

“That’s great because they buy the smaller ones — they taste just the same!” Eric says.

This year brought two changes, one being the installation of a drip irrigation system as part of the Conservation Security Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service Extension in The Dalles. The irrigation water is pressurized and filtered twice before going into the drip lines, to make sure it’s free of pesticides and herbicides.

The other new facet to the business is the birth of the Hood River Garlic Web site (www.hoodrivergarlic.com). Terri works the Web site and Eric works the land.

In addition to order information about the garlic, the Web site has a year-round growing guide as an aid to gardeners who buy the seed.

“Since they’re gardeners we designed the Web site so they could see the whole process,” Eric says. “I wish we’d had something like that when I was getting started!”

Another change is in store: Eric will build a barn this fall, so that he doesn’t have to borrow his neighbor’s barn to dry the garlic after it’s harvested. It’s an old wooden barn, perfect for drying garlic.

“It’s a great drying room because it’s got all those holes in it and the wind comes right through,” Eric says. “It hangs in the barn, kind of like tobacco.”

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