garlic jerry ford

HUTCHINSON, Minn. — Perhaps one of the better kept secrets in rural Minnesota is the Minnesota Garlic Festival.  Staged at the McLeod County fairgrounds in Hutchinson on Aug. 11, the festival takes a raft of volunteers to keep this shindig happening — which does indeed provide one of the most tasty  and mind-teasing events in middle America.

The 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. agenda had everyone smiling, eating, viewing 62 vendors, eating again, listening to garlic experts, and then just a bit more eating. The festival offered at least 36 concoctions containing various tastes of the nearly 100 different garlic varieties working their way into an ever-increasing lineup of garlic-flavored morsels.

Music at the festival was provided by Rogue Flamenco, utilizing dance, singing, percussion, Spanish guitars and the poetry of Flamenco.

The Narren of New Ulm is eight crafty (at times elegant) and often bizarre individuals — each in outlandish costumes complete with outrageous, hand-carved wooden face masks. Perhaps better described as a German “Village of Fools.” Explained Kathy Ruby, “We’re a takeoff on a German festival which has been going on probably for hundreds of years. Yes, we’re crazy and that’s why it’s so much fun. We call it German Mardi gras.”

The Minneapolis Police Pipe Band performed with Scottish bagpipes along with violin/fiddle player Dempsey Schroeder.

The Preludes to a Blizzard is a collective of Twin Cities natives who perform a variety of music. Master falconer Marc Rude and his Harris hawk Mr. Harley were in attendance as well as The Gardenhosen Fairy and ukulele player Ingrid Sofia Carlson.

Making this a family event is an area of children’s activities at the “Little Tent” with games and a garlic toss. There is even something called “The Peculiar Pragmatic Promenade.” A kite contest encouraged festival goers to build and decorate their own kite, then fly it in the grandstand parking lot.

There was also plenty of information for those who might like to become a garlic growing farmer. The University of Minnesota Extension Service covered these topics: “Garlic 101: Everything you need to know about growing garlic in Minnesota;” “Preserve Your Harvest: Can, Freeze, or Pickle Produce Safely;” and “Chickens and Pigs and More, Oh My!” 

Extension Educator Wayne Martin spoke on the benefits and challenges of raising livestock on a small farm. “Farm Transition Hub” with Sustainable Farming Association’s Theresa Keaveny discussed transitioning land to new and aspiring farmers.  Wrapping up this potpourri was “Garlic Growers Roundtable” with Jerry Ford and Festival Garlic Growers doing an informal discussion about the 2018 garlic season.

A garlic growing contest showcased the biggest and best garlic from local gardeners and growers.  Four medallion hunts were provided for those seeking “The Holy Clove.”  Those who found The Holy Clove received fame, fortune, and perhaps a fabulous prize … maybe.  Hunters are identified as the few, the proud and the stinky! 

The beverage pavilion featured Minnesota wine, cider and craft beer; but surprisingly, not a garlic-flavored beer.  But the festival did offer garlic ice cream by Minnesota Nice Cream — described as softserve ice cream with garlic waffle cones and a variety of garlic toppings. Chefs from The Abundant Kitchen, Barbette, Red Stag Super Club, Zellas, and Great Scape Café each shared “food talk time” about using garlics in home food cooking.

The festival included some garlic growers selling their products and encouraging even more new growers. 

Russ Swenson, who lives near Ortonville, Minn., calls his garlic operation Big Stone Garlic.  “I love growing garlic,” he claimed. “It’s now our main crop. We planted about 23,000 cloves last fall — which is less than half an acre. Depending upon variety, each bulb produces six and up to 20 cloves. The clove is the seed portion which is planted in October just ahead of when the ground freezes up. We want the cloves to put down roots but not sprout. Our mulch is 6 to 8 inches — either wheat straw or ditch hay — to keep the weeds down, maintain soil moisture and lessen winter damage.”

Swenson loves this event too. “This Festival is the premier selling event for most of us growers. Our biggest one-day sale of bulbs is at this event. Plus, we’re working with the University of Minnesota and the Sustainable Farming Association to get garlic and other rural produce into the grocery food chain system.  Our first shipment to food stores will be the first week in September.”

Zachary Paige, operations manager of GreenSide Farm in Ponsford, Minn., grows certified organic garlic in the Pelican Rapids area. “I grew about 400 pounds of organic production this year which is almost 4,000 garlic heads. Garlic is almost like a pyramid scheme. Get just 20 to 30 pounds that first year, but it grows exponentially from there.  Each clove that you plant produces a garlic bulb with five or more cloves, so you can expand your numbers fairly quickly once you get going.”

Paige displayed eight different garlic varieties at the festival. “People like the big clove varieties,” he admitted. “They have a nice purple look. They are the bigger garlic. We plant the first week in October, about 1½ to 2 cloves deep. Garlic is relatively easy to grow. Keep the weeds out. Yes, I think I’ll be expanding. The garlic market is strong.”

And the reason for an expanding market for garlic are the creative new uses for garlic such as garlic flavored popcorn — a popular snack at the festival. Tracie Thiemann of St. Peter, Minn. was selling hand-popped garlic-flavored kettle corn with the Auntie Wendy’s label.  “Yes, it tastes like garlic and it is good,” said Thiemann. “It’s made like regular kettle corn to which we add a bit of garlic.”

According to Jerry Ford, Upper Midwest Garlic Growers board chairman, there are about 110 registered garlic growers in Minnesota plus a few more who have not joined the association. About 3,500 to 4,000 people attend each year. “We don’t believe you have to get bigger to get better. We like to keep our festival at a sustainable level. We make money. All the vendors and garlic farmers make money and everybody goes home happy,” said Ford.

Minnesota corn and soybean growers are having a tough year. “So too garlic growers,” said Ford. “We plant our seed cloves in October with sprouts coming up in April. But that April blizzard was devastating for newly-sprouted garlic plants, so everybody lost a lot of garlic this year and garlic bulbs are smaller. Normally  that cover mulch which we spread after our October plantings is all that’s needed to safely get the crop through the winter. But that heavy, wet snow in April compacted the mulch — squelching new garlic sprouts.”

Garlic growers prefer the “hard necked” garlics because of their winter hardiness.  Many of these hard necked garlics originated in northern Siberia so garlic is a northern crop.  Ford mentioned a particular variety from northern China were temps seldom get above 50 degrees at the 9,000-feet altitude where these garlics are grown.

California is the largest garlic producer in the United States.  China is the world’s largest producer and most grocery store garlic comes from China. Yes, the China/United States trade wrangling is likely soon to impact even the price of garlic at your local food store. But Ford said a growing number of Minnesota garlic growers are marketing through the Minnesota Premium Garlic Project to various food stores both in the metro area and outstate. ”We can’t meet demand right now,” he admitted. “Demand is far more than what our local growers can provide. But we’re expanding as rapidly as our growers can expand into these new markets.”

So why isn’t there a sudden increase in more garlic growers? Ford commented, “Because it takes a while to get started. And it’s not required to be organic to get into garlic marketing. Of the 15 growers here at our festival, only two of us are certified organic.  If you have to use chemicals to grow garlic, you’re doing something wrong.” 

“Growing garlic is easy,” summed up Ford, whose garlic banner reads, “Living Song Gourmet Garlic.”

“My wife and I are both musicians and thus the name of our garlic farm.  Our garlic is not from China or California.  We’ve developed our own seed lines which are producing a better, all-around garlic.”

Ford noted garlic is one of the few crops that lives in the soil for nine months. And if you want to start your own garlic patch, buy your bulbs locally because they are already acclimated to their surroundings. Despite the excitement in the air at Minnesota’s Garlic Festival,  Ford adds caution, saying, “it’s an expensive crop to start because seed stock is expensive. So you want to buy the right stuff that first time. And once established, you want to save from your own seed stock for future plantings.”