In part two of a series on garlic growing, Mark Gallagher talks to Johns River organic grower Ian Gerrand. Future articles will track the progress of his crop and the organic garlic being grown at the Garlic Farmacy at Mungay Creek, profiled previously in Town and Country.
All the public relations work has been done for organic garlic, says grower Ian Gerrand, and enough people are now convinced of the superiority of the local organic product to mean there is a solid market for it.
Even though more than 80 per cent of garlic consumed in Australia is imported from China, Spain and elsewhere, enough people are aware of how it is fumigated with methyl bromide and bleached to make it look good, to prefer the quality, flavour and health-giving properties of organic garlic grown in this country, he says.
Ian and his wife Daintree grow garlic on a cleared section of their 9.3-hectare property at Johns River, between Taree and Port Macquarie.
After running a landscaping business and native plant nursery on the property they switched to growing Christmas bush, which they did for 15 years and, finally, four years ago started growing garlic where previously there had been 20 40-metre-long rows of Christmas bush.
Because their growing area is surrounded by intact blackbutt forest they had been able to grow the Christmas bush without spraying and thought this would also be the case with garlic.
They have left some Christmas bush trees growing in the paddock, along with some lemon myrtles and their vegie patch to avoid a monoculture.
Fruit and nut trees such as bananas, mulberries, citrus and macadamias also grow nearby.
Unlike many organic garlic growers they do not mulch their crop, believing that in the humid and often wet Mid North Coast climate mulching increases the risk of fungal problems, which garlic is susceptible to.
But the downside is the need to constantly weed the garlic crop over winter and, with about half an acre to be planted this year, Ian says it is like the proverbial task of painting the Sydney Harbour Bridge – as soon as you finish the job you have to start all over again at the other end.
Ian and Daintree follow the standard three-year garlic rotation - grow garlic for one season then something else for the next two years – meaning they need three times as much growing area as the annual planting.
While this is only their fourth year of garlic growing – and still very much “on a learning curve” – they have now grown-on enough seed garlic to plant twice the area cultivated last year, which is probably as big as they want to get.
Between crops and to prepare for planting, Ian grows green manure and cover crops, including cowpeas, millet and oats.
This season he has planted a green manure crop of tillage radish, which grows deep enough to break up the clay subsoil.
This will be ploughed in before flowering and replaced with a winter cover crop in the fallow beds.
This current year’s garlic beds have had compost added and ploughed in with the green manure.
Ian makes three large compost heaps each year, buying in truckloads of cow manure from an organic dairy farm and hay and other dry matter from other growers.
The heaps are rowed and turned using the bucket on his tractor and covered with more hay.
Ian has his own bush style “thermometer” to gauge the temperature in the compost heaps – a steel crowbar plunged into the centre of the heap.
If the bar gets too hot to hold on to comfortably, the heap is too hot and needs turning to cool it down.
Less heat in the bar indicates whether it is “cooking” properly or needs aerating to warm it up.
Ian and Daintree grow two garlic varieties – white Italian and Rocambole, which is a large-bulb variety (but is not Russian garlic), with a lot of flavour and which seems to tolerate dry spring conditions better than the Italian, Ian says.
Last year the white Italian garlic grew “multiple bulbs” – additional cloves attached to the main bulb, which Ian believes may have been a result of the dry and alternating hot and cold conditions in spring.
However the Gerrands intend to make use of the unmarketable bulbs to grow garlic shoots or green garlic this year as a sideline to the main crop.
As there was no irrigation in place last year the garlic was hand watered in especially dry periods, but rather than just relying on the soil’s water-holding capacity Ian will install moveable sprinklers this year.
Ian and Daintree intend to sell the bulk of their crop locally after a good response from retailers last year, and have also sent small trial shipments to a food co-op in Sydney, which is keen for more.
Ian says most specialist businesses he approached were happy to pay around $28 a kilo for the garlic, with some other organic growers asking considerably higher amounts.
This year will be a test year for them, Ian says, with twice as much garlic in the ground as last year.
“If we can cope with the weeding we will be happy maintaining that area,” he says.
“We want to keep it simple and small scale.”