TRUXTON, Mo. – Rusty Lee’s quest for a few garlic cloves to plant turned into an unlikely business venture.
Suppliers put the University of Missouri Extension agronomist on a waiting list. That’s when Lee decided he needed to sell seed stock to other growers as well as raise table garlic for direct sales to consumers. Lee Farms LLC now sells garlic seed stock to Morgan County Seeds in Versailles and Hummert International in Earth City.
At first, Missouri seemed an unlikely place to grow garlic. China grows 80 percent of the world’s garlic, followed by India. In the United States, California is the top garlic-producing state.
Lee and his family operate Lee Farms at Truxton. Their experience with Community Supported Agriculture, farmers markets and commercial sales to large grocers told them there was a demand for locally grown garlic.
Missouri produces about half the yield per acre as California. Even so, Missouri’s soil and climate produce good yields, Lee says. “Garlic needs a cold winter, wet spring and dry summer,” he says. “We’re in a good growing area.”
There are two main types of garlic: hardneck and softneck. Commercial varieties are commonly the softneck type. They store well, which allows for year-round availability. Many chefs prefer the more flavorful hardneck types, but they store poorly and are only available seasonally. Lee grows hardneck varieties that have a marketing window of July through December. He recommends buying only seed stock inspected by the Missouri Department of Agriculture to avoid disease and pest problems.
Garlic grows from bulb sections called cloves. It grows quickly and multiplies sevenfold in well-drained soil. Too much water is its worst enemy.
Plant garlic in late fall and harvest in summer, says Lee. He plants “not potato deep but deeper than an onion,” around 2-3 inches. A member of the onion family, garlic is a cool-season crop. Lee harvests garlic by July 4 to avoid summer heat.
Lee began growing garlic in raised beds. They provide the best drainage, but it was time-consuming and physically demanding, Lee says.
Next, he field-planted garlic. It takes about 1,000-1,100 pounds of garlic cloves per acre. Growing garlic this way took more time than the Lee family had. Looking for ways to reduce manpower, they began using a small hand-loaded garlic planter that fed cloves into tilled rows. This year, the Lees invested in a new commercial garlic planter from Poland.
Lee uses a split application of nitrogen and mulches rows with chopped straw for winter protection and weed control. He rents a straw chopper from the local Soil and Water Conservation District and irrigates as needed with underground drip tape.
When lower leaves turn brown, he uses an undercutter to loosen soil and harvest. Harvest timing is critical. Left too long, the bulb’s papery cover weakens. Lee keeps leaves on the bulb and shakes soil loose. Bulbs dry in racks in a shed protected from sun and rain. The bulbs need forced air circulation to dry properly.
No special equipment is needed for home gardeners.
Garlic sells well at farmers markets and through Community Supported Agriculture produce boxes, says Lee. Garlic’s edible parts include the flavorful scapes. The scapes—the green part of the garlic plant—shoot up much like wheat in May. They can be cut off with a pocketknife and grilled when young and tender.
To learn more about garlic, see “Garlic: A Brief History” at ipm.missouri.edu/MEG/2015/9/Garlic-A-Brief-History.
Lee tells more about garlic production May 17 in Springfield at the first Missouri Garlic School. Register at extension.missouri.edu/greene or call 417-881-8909.