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Produce Corner
November 2014


Field Odds
By Dennis Linden

If you have been a consistent reader of this feature, then you probably know that I also raise a small crop of heirloom garlic each year. This past season the plot was divided between four kinds of “hardneck” varieties, 2275 plants altogether. These garlics differ greatly in appearance, flavor and extended shelf-life from the familiar, uniformly-sized, white “softneck” garlics, found in most all grocery stores. Hardnecks also take a lot of labor-intensive care to grow and harvest successfully. In fact, the growing process is so hands-on costly that it is unlikely that the mega-farm garlic industry will ever attempt to grow these varieties in volume for commercial distribution.

That said, just because one invests the time and attention necessary to grow a crop successfully, does not guarantee that said crop will BE successful. Growing any crop is a game that involves three cards. The science that goes into a farmer’s growing practices is one of those cards and the only one that the grower has any control over. Mother Nature holds the other two cards: weather and predators. This season, after hundreds of hours of all that ‘”labor-intensive” stuff and months of absolutely perfect growing conditions, my entire crop was severely blemished by the small bites of a tiny wireworm that got into the soil somehow.

These little buggers do not infest; they prefer to amble through a crop, taking a nibble or two from each garlic head. Those bites heal over well enough during the growing season, but also leave the garlic with very distinct scars for the grower [that be me] to discover only at harvest time when the garlic is dug, bunched and hung to cure. These pests are extremely efficient too, as they only missed chomping on about 5% of the crop.

Where these critters came from is a mystery. The wireworm is apparently a common occurrence in garlic patches; I have now read up on how to rid the soil of them without the use of pesticide. Still, all the time and toil that went into raising these plants to harvest has been lost. That work started a year ago last spring with the planting of a nutritional cover crop and then tilling the soil several times with a tractor during the summer to prep it for planting last October. Then there were the hours of weeding that began last spring and continued through this past summer. So, it was really more like 18 months of labor. Sure, the garlic can be used and the least-affected cloves can be planted for the next crop; however, in a marketplace where eye appeal is always a factor, the scarring is just too widespread to sell this year’s crop.

For me, this is more of a hobby crop that I do not depend upon for an income. I started growing garlic mostly because of a fascination over the thousands of beautiful varieties that are available from around the world—each with its own unique coloring and taste. Plus tending to this small acreage has always been a good way to keep in touch with the dirt and the art of farming, which is the foundation of the produce industry.

So, while my heart sunk when I discovered the extent of the damage during bunching and hanging the garlic plants to cure, there was never a thought of any financial loss involved. There was no mortgage, or even a meal, dependent on this crop. Not so for those hard-working individuals who tend the soil for a living, who I have had the privilege of working with throughout my produce career. Their fortitude and resolve to simply carry on when faced with total destruction of a crop due to the set of environmental cards dealt, after so much work, has always amazed. There are so many uncontrollable factors that can affect a crop, which the consumer never thinks about as we all take for granted the bounty of fruits and vegetables available in our local retail produce departments.

For instance, Colorado's damaging hail season is considered to be from mid-April to mid-August. That is also growing season. Colorado's Front Range, encompassing the flatlands on the eastside of the Rockies to the north and south of Denver, is the heart of "Hail Alley," which receives the highest frequency of large hail in North America and most of the world. Growers who farm in the region can usually can count on three or four catastrophic hailstorms every year. Since hail moves in segmented bands across a landscape, it’s just the luck of the draw.

Working the sales desk of a 3,000-acre organic vegetable farm in this region, I recall the devastation that hail caused to a 10-acre swatch of romaine and butter lettuce in one corner of the operation. The rows of lettuces looked as though they had all been trampled on and shredded, while nearby acreage was completely intact. When I got back to the office to report on this damage, the grower was already out with a crew planting a replacement field with obviously no time, or the mindset, to dwell on the loss.

Washington cherry growers produce one of the state's most valuable crops per acre; however it’s also a high-stakes gamble in the cherry harvest casino where an entire season's painstaking labor — and investment — can be lost in a passing storm. Rain on a cherry crop that is almost ready to harvest is disaster. All it takes is a summer shower to swell the fruit, already fat with juice, until its skin splits with a small pop. I have stood in a cherry orchard during a rainstorm; the sound of cherries splitting all around me, like popcorn popping, was not a good experience.

In fact, rain at the wrong time can bring an ironic headache to all sorts of farmers who would love it any other time of year. After all, rainwater irrigates a crop for free. However, in June for instance, wine grape growers usually shut off water to encourage ripening of fruit; rain just makes the leaves grow too dense. Hay growers could be in the middle of a cutting, which rain can ruin. Beans and corn, depending on when they are planted, could be seedlings struggling to push through soil now muddy and crusted by rain.

Wind is another condition that can damage a crop that has otherwise been tended impeccably. Blowing tree leaves can create scuff marks on the skin of stone fruits like peaches and nectarines or leave a brownish scar across the light yellow coloring of the delicate Rainier cherry. In the fresh produce business these cosmetic imperfections detour fruit, scheduled for retail displays, into the less profitable processed foods market.

Many growers must place speakers throughout an orchard to broadcast the recording of a shot gun boom to discourage the droves of fruit-pecking birds. For many fruit growers there is always the looming threat of killing frosts, especially in early spring that can drop all the blossoms off a tree. Counter intuitively, strawberries growers turn on their sprinkler systems when below freezing temps are predicted; the water freezes around each berry plant forming a protective shell of ice that actually maintains the temperature above freezing during the cold spell.

Cherry growers are probably the most stoic lot in the face of natural disaster. In the Pacific Northwest it is said that a cherry grower will lose an entire crop at least once every five years due to an untimely rain or hail. I worked with a cherry grower who once spent $100,000 over a three-day period keeping several helicopters in the air to ward off the moisture and dry out his crop throughout an extended rainstorm. Finally the sun came out and he called off the copters. That night a freak squall passed quickly through the area before he could react and ruined his entire crop. He called the next morning to report that there would be no more fruit for the fresh market and that his crew had already begun stripping the trees to send the fruit to a processor, sold for its juice. The calm tone of his voice was what I will always remember; knowing that if it were me in the situation, I would be on a high ledge somewhere being talked down!

“Maybe next year for the cherries, right now I still have a peach crop to get in” was the extent of his review of what had just happened. That was a great lesson on keeping things in perspective that I can only hope to emulate in dealing with the failure of my own small garlic patch...maybe next year.

These natural, and all too common, pitfalls that stand in the way of bringing a crop to market, makes the abundant selection in our local retail produce departments even more impressive. It not only takes thousands of growers to keep those displays well stocked, but a percentage of each crop never gets to market though a grower did everything “right”. It is Ma Nature’s gauntlet of natural calamities that no grower can escape unscathed forever. Every professional farmer must learn to accept the probability of being slapped down by the elements and, here’s the trick, being mentally able to get back up on the tractor again.

Just something to think about on that next trip to the market as you walk those aisles of fresh produce that made it through all the wind, rain, frost, pests and pestilence. I will let others judge if it's fortitude or foolishness, but I did sort out and break up that 5% of undamaged garlic heads those wireworms left behind to use for seed, replanting all of them last month. Hopefully next season’s crop will be better.