Sometimes it takes a while to find the perfect place to farm. Mary Alionis and her husband Vince started farming on small property in southern Oregon, then moved to a larger farm in the Cascades where they grew vegetables for farmers’ markets. They eventually moved to Oregon’s Applegate Valley in 2003 and although they still grow a wide variety of vegetables, their focus is on garlic.
There’s an interesting history behind the many garlic varieties available today. “After the fall of the Soviet Union, people went over to Georgia and the other garlic-growing regions over there and brought back a lot of seed stock,” said Mary. “A lot of strains of hard-neck garlic, like Chesnok Red, came from that area.” Some of the Creole type garlics, which originate from the Mediterranean area are also becoming increasingly popular. “They can handle warmer climes,” said Mary. “The Aglio Rosso is from the Aglio rosso di Sulmona region of Italy. More people are pushing the edge to grow garlic, so these Creole types are better suited for those areas.
Mary says garlic can be grown in a wide range of conditions and it adapts well to extreme temperatures, but it doesn’t like to get wet. Garlic doesn’t do well in the steamy conditions of the southeast and the damp climate in parts of the Pacific Northwest invites molds and mildews. “We’re located between climate zones, so we can grow most garlics,” said Mary. “We are not extremely hot and we get frost for vernalization. Some are more challenging but we can do pretty well with most varieties.” The garlic season begins with late fall planting, usually in October and November. Mary says the goal is to get it established prior to extended periods of cold weather. “We want it in the ground and have it start to put out roots before the ground freezes,” she said. “Otherwise the bulbs will pop back up to the surface. Once it’s rooted and growing, it goes dormant.” Garlic is planted directly into beds with a balanced fertilizer along with gypsum, ground limestone and high sulfur trace mineral supplements.
Growing garlic in an organic system can be challenging but Vince and Mary have it figured out. “The two things that make it work are keeping it weed free and making sure it has water,” said Mary. “We can get ahead of the first flush of chickweed by flaming the beds. The tips of the garlic can handle getting flamed. Garlic is fairly shallow rooted, so if it gets too weedy and we have to get in and do a lot of vigorous hoeing, the roots can be damaged.” In February, when there’s a sunny spell, Vince and Mary make sure the beds are clean and weed-free and add high-nitrogen fertilizer to provide a nutritional boost. “Fertilizer enhances vigor as the garlic plants start to grow in mid to late February,” said Mary. “If we keep it weed-free and moist during winter, it has a good start.” Keeping the growing garlic supplied with water is a critical aspect of production. Mary says if it’s dry in April they’ll start using their overhead irrigation system to supply plants with ample water. Garlic is harvested in late June or early July. After a week of drying down, it’s lifted from the beds for drying. “The leaves start to brown from the ground up,” said Mary, explaining how she determines harvest readiness. “We harvest it with an undercutter, which is like a giant stirrup hoe that’s mounted on the tractor. It slides along and digs down about six inches, just under the root.”
Although garlic is usually relatively pest-free, there are several potential insect problems. Because Whistling Duck garlic is organically grown, good IPM, crop rotations and cover crops are critical to success. Mary allows at least five years between garlic crops and cover crops are sown starting immediately after summer harvest. “Sometimes I’ll follow garlic with late summer lettuce or greens, then roll into a cover crop for winter,” she said. “Before I plant it in October, I try to plant a cover crop like Sudan grass, which will crowd out weeds and add a lot of organic matter. We try to have a stout cover crop in any particular area of a field at least every two years.” Mary says they are fortunate to not have nematodes and mildews that often plague garlic. The biggest pest is thrips, which stresses the garlic, especially if it becomes too dry. Mites also affect garlic and if mites get in the soil, they’re hard to eliminate. Mites eat the membrane that’s between the outer wrapper and the inner bulb, which leaves the garlic prone to opportunistic pathogens. Mary has found that most pests and diseases appear when plants are stressed, so she’s vigilant about supplying ample water at critical times.
Whistling Duck Farm ships certified organic garlic to customers throughout the U.S. from late August through the end of November. Although Mary would like to offer more new strains to customers, she says it’s hard to find disease-free certified organic stock. When she does find a new variety, she grows it out and tests it herself before offering it to customers. “If garlic is managed right, there’s a good supply year-round,” she said. “If you have a lot of varieties and conditions that grow garlic that’s good for storing, it will keep until March or April, and by then, there’s green garlic.”
In addition to garlic, Whistling Duck Farm grows vegetables and operates a fermentaria. After trial and error fermenting nearly everything they grow, both individually and in combinations, Mary has a good idea of what works and what doesn’t. One popular fermented mix is Edgy Veggie, which includes cauliflower, onion, carrots, garlic and red pepper flakes. “We make jalapeno relish that includes minced and fermented jalapeno, garlic and onion,” she said. “Add that to fresh tomatoes and onion, and you have a fresh salsa that has an edge to it.” Although their main outlet for years was farmers’ markets, Vince and Mary now have a full-service store on the farm. It’s stocked with fresh vegetables in season and a full line of fermented products. Ferments are offered in pints and half pints, and brines in 12-ounce bottles. Whistling Duck still maintains contracts with several natural food stores and offers some of their crops wholesale. Mary says the increased interest in garlic has raised it to a new level. People select varieties for a specific region and microclimate based on the origins of each variety. “It’s like fine wine and terroir,” she said. “People are growing different strains of garlic specific to a site.”