CULT OF THE CLOVE
Garlic puts Northern Nevada on the map.
WRITTEN BY JESSICA SANTINA
PHOTOS BY JAMIE KINGHAM AND COURTESY OF JAMASON FARMS
If you could create the ideal crop for Northern Nevada, it would thrive on temperature extremes, low amounts of precipitation, and dry, rocky soil. Luckily, it already exists.
When it comes to Allium sativum, aka garlic, many believe that Gilroy, Calif., is king. What people may not realize is that a large percentage of the edible bulb originated right here in Northern Nevada. In fact, Nevada is second in the nation in its production of garlic seed (with California at the top and Oregon a close third). The bulk of it comes from Northern Nevada's Mason, Smith, and Carson valleys.
Why is it so prolific? Several reasons: First, a cold winter strengthens garlic bulbs, making them hardier and healthier. Second, garlic doesn't require a whole lot of moisture, and its peak water use occurs in early spring, which nicely corresponds with peak run-off periods for Nevada's streams. Finally, Nevada has to be prolific. Its close proximity to the Central Valley's garlic producers means that there's high demand on seed producers in nearby Northern Nevada.
Garlic cloves actually are seeds. The garlic you buy at the market generally has spent two seasons in the ground — the first resulting in small bulbs that were broken apart into seeds, and the second season, with those replanted cloves producing the fat, firm garlic bulbs that eventually wind up on your dinner table.
Ron Yamamoto, who owns and operates Dayton Valley Turf with his son, Cary, was part of the state's first garlic seed production. After the Yamamotos moved to the Reno area from Idaho in 1957, Ron began a partnership with longtime farmer Vic Dondero, who grew onions for Vacaville, Calif.-based Basic Vegetable Products, an onion- and garlic-processing company.
In 1959, Basic Vegetable approached Yamamoto and Dondero about growing its garlic seed.
"At the time, most garlic seed was produced in California, and Basic was interested in trying to grow its seed in a geographically different area to help increase garlic quality," Cary Yamamoto says.
It was the first such endeavor, and they met with only marginal success that first year. The next year, Yamamoto and Dondero purchased seed stock from local Italian farmers who had retained seed strains native to Italy. From this seed stock, the two planted numerous plots and created a hardy seed variety that could set them up for seed success.
"At this point, Basic realized this seed was far superior in size, uniformity, and vigor compared to its own seed from California," Yamamoto says. "(Company managers) purchased the seed from Vic and Ron and further developed their seed production by opening it up to farmers in Smith Valley."
Thus, a thriving garlic seed production industry was born, spreading across northwestern Nevada, even including Empire Farms in Gerlach, which, before it stopped producing garlic crops in 2008, was a major player in the industry.
"All of the garlic grown in this area (Smith and Mason valleys) is for seed, under contract with garlic-producing companies, mainly in California," says Jim Snyder, farm manager at Snyder Livestock Co. and president of the Nevada Department of Agriculture's Garlic and Onion Advisory Board.
Snyder Livestock currently produces 400 acres' worth of seed for Sensient Technologies in Turlock, Calif., and Olam International in Gilroy and Fresno, Calif., both processors of dehydrated garlic, as well as for Harris Fresh in Coalinga, Calif., and Christopher Ranch in Gilroy, which grow fresh market garlic.
"Nevada probably supplies about 30 to 40 percent of seed for the industry as a whole," says Mike Mantelli with Christopher Ranch in Gilroy.
"Garlic needs to go through a very cold winter, but not so cold it kills it," Mantelli says. "Northern Nevada, Northern California, and Central Oregon are good garlic areas, primarily because of their latitude and longitude. Garlic likes the 4,000- to 5,000-foot range, and not too much colder than 20 or 25 degrees. This sets the garlic up. Like fruit trees, if they don't get enough cold weather, they don't produce as much fruit."
Additionally, Northern Nevada's soil is arid and, unlike California's, not prone to fungal-borne pathogens, such as white rot, that wreak havoc on garlic.
"Garlic is particularly susceptible to these pathogens," says Steve Marty, an agriculturist with the Nevada Department of Agriculture.
In fact, in the 1970s, the California garlic industry experienced a devastating setback when white rot wiped out huge swaths of land dedicated to growing garlic. The disease can be spread by infected seed, machinery that hasn't been cleaned, or even shoes that carry it from one field to another.
"Some pathogens are so detrimental that once they're in a field, that field can no longer be used for garlic production," Marty says.
As Marty explains, this is why, in the early 1980s, seed production in Nevada really took off. An Allium quarantine and inspection program was implemented by Nevada Department of Agriculture, to control the quality of the state's soil for this economically important crop.
So why not just establish commercial growing operations in Nevada? For one, we get more bang for our buck this way. Snyder says that one acre of land for seed production can produce enough seed for five acres' worth of market-quality garlic. And with high production costs and lower, smaller yields than California's, it would be hard for Nevada to compete on a large, commercial scale.
But small, local growers smell success in our ideal growing conditions, and are increasingly making excellent, locally grown garlic available at area farmers' markets, direct from farms, and even at great local restaurants. And that's pretty sweet.
Jessica Santina is a freelance writer and the managing editor of edible Reno-Tahoe. She also loves to cook, and, thanks to her research for this story, her Italian husband will be enjoying even more garlic at their dinner table.
"First, don't listen to anybody who says garlic can't grow here," Earstin Whitten says.
He ought to know. The son of sharecroppers, who grew up on an Arkansas farm, Whitten's been a gardener his whole life. While living in Chicago, he met a man named John Swenson, a garlic expert who introduced several varieties of garlic into the U.S. and offered lectures at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Through this meeting, Whitten discovered a curiosity about and passion for garlic. He shares the knowledge he's gained through talks that he gives to local gardeners around the area. And he applies this knowledge in his own Reno garden, where he grows 1,000 to 1,500 heirloom garlic plants per year.
There are more than 600 varieties of garlic, with all of them falling into one of two categories: softneck, which commercial growers primarily sell, and hardneck, which are a little more finicky and, many believe, more flavorful. Garlic is quite hardy, and it's fruitful. With each clove being a seed, one bulb can produce multiple garlic plants.
Whitten says he has grown as many as 15 at a time, but he doesn't recommend it — it's a nightmare to keep them all straight. His favorite variety? German Extra Hardy.
"The key is the soil," Whitten says. "You have to have a lot of organic material. I use a lot of horse manure, leaves from trees that have fallen ... You need good, high-quality organic matter in the soil. It's ideal if it's about 12 inches deep, minimum."
This is because garlic creates a root system that holds it into the ground and pulls it in more deeply, he says. You plant the garlic seeds, pointed sides up, about 4 to 6 inches into the soil, and about 4 to 6 inches apart. About another 4 to 6 inches of mulch goes on top of the soil, he says, to protect it from the elements and keep the moisture in the soil.
Garlic really should be planted between mid-October and mid-November.
"It will come up in winter, but the growth above the soil goes dormant and dies," he says. "It goes through a pretty substantial growing season between March and June."
This is when the hardneck varieties send up a scape, a seedpod that shoots out of the ground like a flower, in an effort to reproduce itself. Whitten explains that the garlic expends its energy on the scape, so it's essential to cut this off in order for the bulbs to grow in the ground. Scapes are a flavorful delicacy for which local chefs clamor, when they're available, to make such items as salad dressing, stir fry, and pesto sauce.
Garlic harvest begins mid-July. Once it's harvested, dry it in a cool, dark place until the papery leaves are entirely brown.
But, he says, don't wait until fall to buy your seeds, or you'll be out of luck.
"The seed catalogs offer garlic in July, so if you don't order soon enough, the entire supply will be gone, and you'll have to wait until next year," he says.
At Jamason Farms, in Lander County, Dennis Jamason started growing garlic on one-half acre in 2004. He started with 5,300 plants in 26 varieties, and his production peaked in 2010 with a whopping 16,000 plants. Since then, his certified organic operation has whittled down to nine varieties. His favorites are Killarney Red and Siberian Red. His garlic is available at the Great Basin Community Food Co-op, as well as several restaurants in the Reno and Truckee areas.
Jamason's advice for buying garlic seed is to be sure you know where it's coming from, and whether it's lawful to buy there. That's because, back in 2004, he unknowingly broke the law when he ordered seed from a Washington farm. The seed had not been treated for nematodes (roundworms), which was a good thing for maintaining organic certification, but a bad thing in that it violated the allium quarantine law. Because his closed system has been in place for nearly a decade, he's no longer breaking the law, but it's a good lesson for gardeners.
Whitten certainly recommends that gardeners give garlic a try.
"The rate of return is really high, so if you have patience, you'll realize the benefit," Whitten says. "If you could put money in a bank and double or triple it in a year, you'd try that, wouldn't you?"
Fresh Garlic with Garden Tomatoes
(courtesy of Arnold Carbone, Glorious Garlic Farm. Serves 2 as a side dish)
1 large, fresh garden tomato
1 medium-sized clove fresh garlic, chopped fine (softneck varieties work well)
2 fresh basil leaves, chopped chiffonade style
Extra-virgin olive oil
Red wine vinegar
Pinch each salt and pepper
Optional: ⅛ cup fresh mozzarella slices, or chunks of Feta or Romano cheese
Slice tomatoes about ¼-inch thick and arrange on a flat plate. Sprinkle chopped garlic and basil evenly over tomatoes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle with olive oil and a splash of red wine vinegar. If adding cheese, make sure only to add a small amount, so as not to overpower the flavor of the fresh tomato.
(courtesy of Arnold Carbone, Glorious Garlic Farm. Serves 2 as a side dish)
"I like to use a nice, zesty garlic variety, such as Music, Madrid, or Killarney Red, in sautéed dishes. Zucchini Pomodoro lends itself to using garlic chopped into medium or large chunks. When sautéing garlic, always be careful not to go beyond a nice golden yellow color, or the flavor of the garlic will turn bitter. I always keep a little wine, or chicken or vegetable stock, on hand to kill the cooking temperature in the pan if I see the garlic cooking too fast. If you overcook the garlic, toss it and start over with a fresh pan."
1 fresh, medium-sized (10 to 12 inches) zucchini, cut into ⅜-inch slices
3 to 4 medium-sized garlic cloves, chopped into medium or large chunks
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup good-quality canned, crushed tomatoes (no sugar, corn syrup, or spices added)
Dried oregano, to taste
Sea salt and pepper, to taste
Heat a frying pan on medium-high heat (cast-iron skillet works well). When pan is hot, add 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil and a light sprinkling of sea salt. As soon as the oil starts to smoke, add zucchini slices in a single layer. Fry until lightly browned (about 1 or 2 minutes). Flip the zucchini and brown the other side. Remove zucchini and arrange in a single layer on a paper towel to cool. Repeat with any remaining zucchini.
Lower heat to medium. Add 2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil to pan until the oil is shimmering. Add chopped garlic. Cook until golden yellow, about 10 to 15 seconds, then immediately add crushed tomatoes. (It's always better to slightly undercook garlic in the initial sauté than to burn it.) Lower heat and simmer for about three minutes. Add a pinch of salt, pepper, and dried oregano to taste. Cook for about one minute.
Add zucchini and flip in pan or stir gently as you cook for one more minute. Serve immediately.
Great Basin Community Food Co-op
240 Court St., Reno
Open 8 a.m. – 9 p.m. every day, the co-op offers locally grown garlic and, when available, limited quantities of scapes, from several area farmers, including Jamason Farms.
Glorious Garlic Farm
1905 Lakeshore Dr., Washoe Valley, Nev.
Arnold Carbone worked for Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream in Vermont for 23 years, where he spent much of that time growing garlic in his backyard as a hobby. "I figured I'd throw it in the ground and see what happened," Carbone says. "The results were incredible." So when he relocated to Northern Nevada in 2010, he planted 400 heads of garlic and yielded more than 3,000.
Glorious Garlic's 2012 harvest, produced on two acres on his Washoe Valley farm, featured 20 varieties, including Chesnok, Lorz Italian, Sicilian Artichoke, Transylvanian, and two Asiatic varieties, Thai Fire and Korean Mountain. Primarily, Glorious Garlic sells to high-end restaurants, including "those that can get creative with the garlic I have, for the price I need to charge for it," Carbone says, adding that locally produced garlic costs a premium because it's fairly labor intensive. He has sold his garlic to Café at Adele's in Carson City, Campo in Reno, and Z Bistro in Carson City. Local residents also can contact Carbone directly to purchase his garlic.
Antelope Valley, Nev.
Certified-organic producer of garlic.
Owners Bill and Korena Mewaldt pioneered organic farming in our area, having helped create the state-run organic certification program in Nevada. Korena, a master gardener, and Bill, who earned a Ph.D. in biology, have taught organic and sustainable farming methods around Northern Nevada for decades. Among the many items they grow is garlic, which they harvest in July, and sell through the late summer and early fall — pick some up before it's gone, as they usually run out by late winter. Their products may be purchased directly from the farm, at the Great Basin Community Food Co-op in Reno, or at Flower Tree Nursery in Fallon.
1955 McLean Road, Fallon, Nev.
Offering organic produce, Lattin Farms sells its certified-organic products, including garlic, at its farm store, through the Great Basin Basket CSA, at area farmers' markets, and at the Great Basin Community Food Co-op in Reno.
A comprehensive resource of information about where to find locally grown food, with an extensive list of garlic producers around the state.