Sunday, June 28, 2015

Growing Mennonite at Railway Creek Farm

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How did we ever get into growing garlic? We try growing new things. Garlic was one of them. Our interest developed quickly after our neighbours gave us bulbs. Later, we found some awesome varieties at farmers markets and also discovered that there were festivals actually dedicated to garlic. My Mum Jean was excited to learn that garlic can grow bigger than what she was accustomed to growing. There was a rumour going around that Ontario can grow 'good' garlic and she decided to achieve that same standard of quality if we were going into the business of growing garlic. Over the years we collected a nice diversity of garlic varieties and strains. We decide what to keep by evaluating each garlic by its flavour, growing habit, disease resistance and storage longevity. We chose the best ones to sell commercially and we have more than 20 kinds including those still in trials. We grow two varieties, Porcelain and Rocambole. Our favourite is Mennonite. Here is its story:
In 1996, a generous gardener at the Madoc Fair gave Mum a couple of Porcelain garlic bulbs. He thought we might be interested in this particular garlic as it was large, tasty, very attractive and had very high sugar content. Did this Porcelain garlic have a name? No. He knew only that it came from Mennonite brothers by the name of Bass, farmers in Wellesley, Waterloo County, Ontario. Many Mennonites who settled in that region were of German and Russian descent or Mennonites of Swiss descent that migrated from Pennsylvania. They could have brought garlic with them from the old country. Most important is how nicely this garlic grows on our farm and how much customers like it.
We simply called this no-name garlic “Mennonite” to remember where it came from, never thinking it was going to become its official name and gain so much popularity. In the first few years, we gradually increased by saving a quarter of each harvest to replant. Through an accidental discovery in our early years, we found that by tossing the clipped immature scape into the pathways doesn’t end the scape's life. No, it continues to mature even after it is severed from the plant and will eventually replant itself with hundreds of tiny bulbils. What a mess, but what a discovery of mass reproductive potential! We replanted the bulbils and discovered that it takes approximately 4 years to grow garlic to a decent size by replanting it every year; 15 years later and we are still using the bulbil method in every garlic strain we grow to increase planting stock.
On our farm, under perfect conditions, and during a perfect summer, Mennonite bulbs are 2.5 inches across on average, juicy, hot and garlicky. Each usually has 4 or 5 cloves, sometimes 2 or 6. It doesn't seem to know what it wants to do, but regardless, all the cloves are large. It read over 40% on a brix meter, which means it is utilizing a lot of sugar growing in our sandy loam soil. I am still learning about the Brix meter and how to interpret it.
One advantage of growing Mennonite is that it seems to be more resistant to fusarium fungal disease than others. All it needs is a good dose of compost, sunlight and water. Some mulch for the winter is helpful and of course, weeding. Leek moth and weather have been a problem for us.
Jean and I have been market gardeners for over 20 years; garlic is our favourite vegetable for a sales pitch. We have sold at the Carp Garlic Festival since 2008, Verona for almost as long and Perth for a few years before Carp. I attend as many local food shows as I can in Hastings County. I sell to our local Foodland grocery store and of course sell from the farm. Recently I have added garlic sales by on-line catalogue. Online marketing is a challenge. The sorting, packaging, and paper work take place in the kitchen several times a week until freeze up. The satisfaction of processing these orders and shipping out boxes of carefully packed bulbs to fellow garlic growers is well worth the inconvenience. Through emails and lengthy phone calls, we are able to share our love of growing this vegetable. We explain how to grow it and how to harvest it, the pest problems and pricing, packaging and labelling.
We grow slightly under 20,000 bulbs per year in less than half an acre. The garlic is planted in raised beds, 3 rows 8 inches apart and 5 inches between cloves. Having both cattle and horse manure is a huge benefit in healthy growth and large size. Five days of work laying drip irrigation is a must on our sandy loam soil to ensure that adequate moisture is available. Due to limited high, dry and sunny south facing fields on our rolling landscape, we have a three-year crop rotation. The land is never bare; we use a combination of clover, buckwheat, fall rye and sometimes mustard to always keep the soil alive and healthy. The harvesting of garlic is intense and demanding. The garlic is dried in two neighbourhood barns, so it has to be bundled, labelled and trucked to these locations daily during the harvest; that takes less than 3 weeks with four people doing it by hand. After the curing time of 2 to 4 weeks, depending on weather conditions, the next tasks are clipping stems, brushing off of loose dirt, grading and inspecting the garlic before packaging and braiding. This all takes a tremendous amount of time and patience. Garlic Festivals in Ontario are very early and it's a challenge to be ready for them with a good quantity and quality of clean garlic.
As long as Railway Creek Farm continues to grow garlic, there will always be Mennonite garlic to eat or plant. You can also try German White, Armenian, Romanian, and Kazakhstan from our selection of Porcelains. We carry a large choice in the Rocamboles including my favourites, Korean, Czech and Russian. We carry Polish, Hungarian, Italian, French, Carpathian, and many more.
At Railway Creek Farm, we answer many calls about how to grow and market garlic. My first advice to newbies is to have a market for the crop before you plant, grow small amounts and build up slowly over several years. My last word of advice is to know your pricing, consider the work involved and don't sell cheap. You must pay yourself, your staff and all the expenses that are incurred.
Editor: See Railway Creek ad, page 10, to order garlic.
8 The Garlic News Issue 44 summer 2015 

By: Elly Blanchard.

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