By Dennis Linden Here in the Pacific Northwest, garlic scapes are a seasonal delicacy prized by both professional and home chefs
Periodically I have written about a specialty garlic crop that I have been developing into a commercial venture for the last several seasons. After some 35 years brokering the crops of others as a fresh produce marketer, I decided it was time to get my own hands dirty in the pursuit of growing a crop for the marketplace. The size of my production is still very small compared to the large commercial fruit growers who I have represented as a sales agent. Still, the experience has given me a firsthand appreciation for those hard working individuals without whom there would be no produce industry or a need for sales agents. Tending a crop from seed to harvest to market involves a lot of weather-related adjustments to whatever Plan A was, a dedicated and physically taxing work ethic, an acute sense of environmental conditions, extensive knowledge in the science of agriculture, as well as many moments of sublime satisfaction watching one’s efforts grow into good, healthy food.
I started with 15 garlic bulbs, representing five different heirloom “hardneck” garlic varieties. When broken apart, each clove is a seed that will grow into a garlic plant; each plant produces one new garlic bulb. By replanting the entire harvest for the last three seasons, this crop is now 1500 plants strong. One more 100% replant this coming October will create enough volume, approximately 7500 plants, to start selling a percentage of the next harvest. Each succeeding stage of this project has come with its own set of challenges, new discoveries and rewards. Here’s some musings about one chapter in this year’s crop…
June: Scape Harvest Notes
Season four of farming for dollars finds me harvesting the eatable, curlicue, reproductive shoot that rises out of the center of each plant, called a Scape. It is necessary to prune these shoots once each season so that all of the plant’s energy is directed to pumping up the size of the garlic bulb, rather than growing this superfluous shoot. When picked at the exact right stage of tenderness, it just so happens that these shoots are quite delicious. In fact, over half of China’s commercial garlic crops are devoted to producing these tasty shoots over the bulbs, as the vegetable has been a staple stir-fry ingredient in that culture’s cuisine for centuries.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, garlic scapes are a seasonal delicacy prized by both professional and home chefs. The vegetable also enjoys pockets of popularity in lower British Columbia and upstate New York, which are the other major hardneck garlic growing regions. In these areas, the limited scape season of June through mid July is always anticipated by knowledgeable foodies and featured on menus, similar to Beaujolais nouveau promotions. Conversely, below the latitude of about San Francisco, these garlic varieties do not grow well and, therefore, the scape is virtually unknown with little market value. So this shoot is very much a local specialty crop in North America; while more than one billion Chinese foodies consider it as common as a carrot! This is the first season that my scape production is large enough to support a few menus; I approached three local chefs, who all committed to the harvest.
Also like wine grapes, picking scapes is all about timing. If left on the plant a few days too long, the shoot becomes extremely fibrous and not edible. It has always been my professional view that a grower should not be the Quality Control guy when it comes to judging his/her own crop. It’s a case of the “none-of-my-babies-are-ugly” syndrome and rightly so. After months of nurturing a crop, the grower has simply grown too close to be an objective QC inspector. That said, I have just spent the last three weeks working hard to look at each shoot through the discerning eyes of my chef-customers and not from the patriarchal view of the one who planted each clove nine months ago over several very cold and windy days in late October.
Admittedly, the first day of scape harvest was much too “fatherly” and definitely not as clear cut for me as simply separating wheat from the proverbial chaff. I know what a professional chef needs; I have been dealing with the demands of these culinary artists my entire career. Still, the pick took extra long as I struggled with Solomon-like decisions over each shoot’s qualifications for a commercial kitchen. In spite of the years of critiquing the imperfections of other growers’ crops, it was very easy to find something good to say about each of my own precious veggie prodigies. After all, I had raised these things from little cloves! As much as I tried to muster some objectivity, my babies were all very beautiful indeed!
It was not until the day’s pickings were back in the barn, spread out on the sorting table, that it became apparent that my own producer prejudices had been much too forgiving. Under the lights, clearly some scapes should have been left to mature a little longer in the field. Others needed to be seen for the “culls” that they were always going to be; perhaps good enough for my own table, but definitely not up to white tablecloth standards. I laughed out loud at myself, realizing that the broker had morphed into a proud grower. I had definitely worn a pair of rose-colored, rather than prescription, spectacles to that first harvest day. Obviously, this crop had crept under the skin, maybe literally considering the still healing blisters and always aching muscles it took to get this far. I resolved to take a more devil’s advocate position during the next harvest session.
Subsequent picks did go much quicker as I took on a more professional, out-of-body objectivity. Over the next three weeks I fell into an every-other-day harvest schedule that had a controlled rhythm to it. I began to recognize “ripe” scapes that were ready for the plucking more easily. I was also able to make quicker decisions about leaving a shoot to fatten up for another few days or pronounce another just not good enough for a chef’s cutting board. As my picking criteria became muscle memory, the look and quality of each harvest improved greatly. Finding a neutral viewpoint in spite of my personal investment in this crop was the key.
While this whole experience has certainly given me a better understanding of the farmer’s day-to-day struggles, I have doubts that doing this earlier in my career would have made me a better marketer. The business of fresh produce distribution at the wholesale level also requires the objectivity of a commodity broker. Frankly, the knowledge of just how much hard work, priceless hard work, it takes to get a crop to market would probably have only served to slow my decision making in the very fast-paced business of buying and selling fresh perishables.
Professionally, I completely understand why the marketplace must be indifferent to the details of any single crop, including actual costs in dollars and sweat. Yet, for the first time in my career, I am selling a crop vested with months of my own time tending to the needs of each and every plant. So this experiment will continue as I try to balance the lessons learned from years behind a sales desk against the emotional connection that comes with taking shovel to soil in order to grow something for that sales desk. It turns out that there is plenty of food for thought also out there to be harvested! Live, learn and grow; though this order sometimes changes.