The (Strong) Smell of Success

Last weekend, while working on a chicken coop at my parent’s farm, my father spoke of a newly acquired acquaintance he had met when purchasing some baled hay that morning. This man sounds like quite the personality as he had tried to sell my father on everything but the kitchen sink. He was a retired dairy farmer that had decided to diversify his farm in the time since he ceased to milk cows. He had begun growing root crops and told my father of the great successes it had brought him. Whilst preparing to leave the man’s farm, my father was persuaded to exchange a Lincoln portrait for 20 lbs. of red potatoes. Upon completing his transaction, my father made small talk about crops with the man. The man explained his potato business but there was another crop he wished to speak of far more than spuds….it was garlic. The man explained the methods used to grow garlic and explained the business model surrounding it. As my father retold the ways of the garlic farmer, I became intrigued to do some research of my own.

First, let’s talk about how garlic is grown. Garlic is closely related to onions, and in turn, grows a large root bulb below the soil surface while extending shoots upward to collect sunlight. Depending on the climate zone you are in, garlic can be planted from October to March and is usually harvested 120-150 days after planting. In Wisconsin, Garlic is usually planted in October or November. The idea is to plant the crop 2-4 weeks before the ground freezes. If you plant too early, shoots will emerge from the ground and can be damaged by the cold. Plant too late, and you risk poor root development and the plant doesn’t get a good start in the spring. Garlic should be grown in well-drained soil or raised beds. Plants can be grown at many populations but for larger bulbs, place 1 plant per sq. ft. Garlic plants can be started from seed but growers usually choose to plant cloves as they develop much quicker. Cloves need to be oriented with the roots pointing downward. The seed piece will be covered with soil, then a layer of straw or plastic mulch will be placed on top to insulate the young plant. At this point, the plant is set for winter. At emergence in the spring, mulch can be removed for faster warming of the soil. The plants will develop a pigtail like flower stalk. This curly stalk should be trimmed so the plant directs energy into the bulb instead of into reproduction. Garlic is a Nitrogen demanding crop and fertilizer can be added to increase yield. Insecticide is not needed in garlic crops because garlic is a natural insect repellant. After fertilizing, time is needed for the crop to mature. Once the leaves on the bottom half of the plant have withered, the crop is ready to be dug, hung, and dried for 4 to 6 weeks. Once dried, the garlic is ready for sale or storage.

Farmers in the United States grow between 24 and 26 thousand acres of garlic every year. Of that, only about half of the crop is sold domestically. The average price currently paid for garlic is about $60/cwt (hundredweight). With tactical, fresh local marketing, producers can easily sell their bulbs for $180/cwt to $240/cwt. The yield per acre is greatly dependent on the varieties grown. Including all varieties grown in the U.S, the average acre produces about 15K lbs., or 150 cwt per acre. Even at $60/cwt., that comes out to $9,000 gross profit, making garlic farming seem very lucrative. Let’s try breaking out some of the expense of growing this crop.

Seed garlic, or dried garlic split in cloves, is not a cheap thing to buy. Upon a few searches for bulk garlic seed, I have seen prices varying from $15 to $20 per lb. depending on the quantity that you buy. If planted at a population of 1 piece per sq. ft., you would need 43,560 seed pieces. I picked a very average sized variety of garlic and found that there are 70 seed pieces per lb. If I divide the number of pieces needed by the number of pieces per lb., I end up requiring 622 lbs. of seed. Some quick math using the above figures shows that it would cost at least $9,300 to plant an acre of garlic in seed pieces alone. That leaves us with a net profit of $300 per acre (Not including any expenses other than seed) So how does one make money growing this unusual crop?

After the first harvest of garlic, plants can be dried and stored and used for seed later that fall. The math above shows me that 622 lbs. of seed could result in 15,000 lbs. of harvested crop. That means the quantity of garlic multiplies by a factor of about 24 times. If I wanted to seed an acre of garlic, I could start by planting 26 lbs. of seed this year on 1/24th of an acre. If I wanted to save even more money, I could plant just over a pound of seed on 1/576th of an acre this year and have enough seed to plant an entire acre in two years. That means I could start a long-term investment in garlic farming with as little as $20 and 75 sq. ft. of fertile, well-drained soil this fall. Being the conservative pessimist I am, I am going to assume it will take me $40 and 150 sq. ft. to get half as much yield as projected, but I still like those odds. I think this just became a lot more lucrative than I thought it was one paragraph ago.

In closing, I hope you enjoy this type of article. I am naturally a dreamer and am always trying to research the next baby step I can take to help lead my family to the farming future we are working so hard for. Preparation is key and nothing can be more important than laying the groundwork for the next task at hand.

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