Garlic smells like farming success
TREMPEALEAU, Wis. — To be a good garlic farmer requires a good sense of humor.
"You hear all kinds of vampire jokes," Jason Hovell told the Leader-Telegram. "I have not seen a vampire since I started growing garlic."
Hovell and Dan Lilla, both of Trempealeau, started Tamarack Garlic Farm in fall 2014 and harvested their first crop this summer.
Tamarack is carved out of land they rent on Lilla's father Dan's 40-cow dairy farm in Trempealeau County. Childhood friends, Hovell grew up on the other side of the ridge from Lilla.
Both are teachers. Hovell teaches agricultural science and advises FFA in Independence, and Lilla teaches technology education in Holmen.
"We wanted to stay in farming, and Dan's in-laws suggested the idea of the garlic farm," Hovell said. "They saw some garlic farms were going in in southern Wisconsin."
"We started looking into it," Lilla said. "It works well with our teaching schedules."
Hovell and Lilla are entering their second growing season with the garlic farm, planting about 28,000 plants on about 1½ acres in early October. This year they harvested about 24,000 plants on about three-quarters of an acre.
"We spaced out our plants a little bit more to make the whole process a little easier," Lilla said. "The tractor can only slow down so fast (during planting). And it'll make it a little bit easier to get between plants for weeding purposes."
They started with about 425 pounds of garlic seed, which resulted in a yield of about 3,400 pounds this year.
"Going into it, we selected varieties that would grow well in Wisconsin," Hovell said.
They planted the cloves in slightly raised beds. The rows will be covered with hay for water retention and to prevent frost heaving in winter.
"Garlic doesn't like its feet wet, so we get it up in a raised bed a bit," Lilla said. "It's a little safer and makes sure you get a little better crop."
"We had a pretty wet year, too," Hovell said. "The raised beds help the water runoff between rows."
The goal is to plant the garlic six or seven weeks before the ground freezes. "We want to establish some root growth but not much top growth," Lilla said.
Garlic needs 35 to 45 days below freezing for the best yields, Hovell said.
"The worst place to store garlic is in the refrigerator," he said. "It's going to trick the plant into thinking it's in a cold cycle, so when you take it out, it's going to sprout and turn bitter."
To prepare garlic for planting, they soak the cloves in vodka for 15 minutes.
"We explained to the guy at the liquor store that we needed four cases of his cheapest vodka," Hovell said. "He said, 'I've been in alcohol for 20 years, and this stuff is undrinkable.'
"It's just an insurance policy against any bad bacteria or microorganisms."
"We're not certified organic, but we do everything naturally," Lilla added.
Most of Tamarack Garlic Farm sales are online; its website says the farm is sold out of garlic until next April. Lilla and Hovell sold the garlic at farmers markets in Galesville, Trempealeau, Holmen, Onalaska and La Crosse this summer. A couple of area grocery stores also carry it.
Ten of the 11 varieties Hovell and Lilla grow are hardneck varieties, which provide scapes — stalks of the plants — that are sold early in the season. Plants will start sprouting in mid-March.
"The scapes have a more mild garlic flavor," Lilla said.
"That was an education experience," Hovell said. "A lot of people got hooked on those. They'd buy a little bit one week to try it out, then come back and buy a couple pounds the next week."