PROGRESS: Garlic packs a strong profitability punch

SALEM, Ohio – Curried coconut shrimp, teriyaki steak wraps and stuffed portobello mushrooms. What’s similar? They all call for garlic, and as more cooks are adding it to their recipes, more farmers are adding it to their fields.
A decade ago, Pennsylvania growers planted 60-80 acres of garlic. Today, that number has more than doubled, according to Mike Orzolek, a Penn State vegetable crop expert.
A couple hundred acres may not sound like much, but when production hits 6,000-8,000 pounds per acre, it adds up, he said.
Adding on. Not only are more recipes calling for garlic, more processors are using it as a seasoning, Orzolek said. Plus it’s an ingredient that spreads across cultures, particularly in European cuisine, he said.
Then there are the health claims: reducing cholesterol, lowering blood pressure, warding off cancer. Whether they’re true or not doesn’t necessarily matter; enough people are willing to put garlic to the test that they’re driving the demand.
Selling out. One Westmoreland County, Pa., vegetable producer watched this growth firsthand.
Liz McClunin grows a quarter acre of garlic each year and wishes she could raise more at her small organic farm in Latrobe, Pa.
Ten years ago when she began selling at a Ligonier County Market, she was the only one offering garlic but now everyone does, she said.
She credits the growth not only to the medicinal craze, but also because people are realizing fresh food is healthier, whether it’s peaches, peas or garlic.
Pricey product. With retail prices of up to $8 a pound, it’s no wonder farmers are eager to feed the trend.
McClunin, for example, harve* * * more than 10,000 bulbs per year and sells them at market for 75 cents each. Growers can get even more, she added, if they sell braided garlic.
Prices are closer to $4 a pound if growers sell to garlic processors, Orzolek said.
An increasingly popular outlet for garlic, however, is selling it as seed, he said. New growers want to cash in on this garlic buzz and older growers just want to plant more. These people need to get seed from somewhere, he said.
Growers typically sell 70 percent to 80 percent of their garlic, Orzolek said, and save the rest of the cloves for the following year’s crop.
Although some farmers sell the cloves as seed, many others need to keep it so they can expand their own production to keep up with demand, he said.
Orzolek said garlic production could increase even more, but getting enough seed is a limiting factor.
Elsewhere. Although garlic production has doubled in Pennsylvania, that isn’t the case everywhere, Orzolek said.
There are more people, more farm markets and more marketing opportunities in the Northeast, he said, and Pennsylvania is right in the heart of it.
Much of the garlic consumed in the United States is being imported, he said, so local producers have plenty of opportunity to fill the gap.
Is it hard? Orzolek and McClunin agree garlic isn’t hard to grow.
Plant the cloves in August and by November the plants are about 4 inches tall. Then they overwinter and resume growth in late March or mid-April. Harvest is in July, Orzolek said.
Growing garlic is labor intensive, though, he said. This is because it is usually harvested by hand. That’s why most fields are usually small, about an acre or less, Orzolek said.
McClunin said washing and preparing the garlic for market is the hardest part.
She trims the roots and hairs, soaks the cloves in water and then scrubs them with a nail brush.
“When I have nice, shiny white bulbs, people will pay more,” she said, adding that she’s the first to sell out of her garlic at the market based on appearance alone.
Scapes. McClunin also found another way to make her product stand out.
She’s started pinching the plant’s flower head before it opens in early June. They’re called scapes and they’re considered a delicacy, she said.
Scapes are particularly big in New York markets where chefs stir-fry them and serve them over pasta, McClunin said. The buds are flavorful but not too hot.
McClunin sells the scapes at farmers’ markets, through her Community Supported Agriculture program and directly to chefs. The going rate is $10-$12 a pound, she said.
(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 23 or by e-mail at


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