Most farmers harvest their crops in the fall, but Luke Ahrndt and Brian Neff just planted theirs in late September.
With their garlic cloves tucked into bed for the winter, patience is a virtue for this farming operation in rural Litchfield. The men will wait — another eight months or so — until the flavorful and aromatic produce is ready for the kitchens of their customers.
Garlic growing can be thought of the way Forrest Gump’s mother metaphorically likened life to a box of chocolates — “You never know what you’re gonna get.”
Or, sort of like the suspense of Christmas morning.
“I joke that I like to think of it as opening a present,” Ahrndt said of the growing outcomes of their numerous varieties of frost-tolerant garlic. Some are mild. Others are packed with a punch. Some are covered in a purple skin, others wrapped in red. “You never know what to expect.”
Garlic growing began as a hobby for these former classmates in 2008 and has since grown into a thriving business, Harvest Moon Garlic. Officially established in 2011, the garlic-growing operation sells garlic bulbs for eating and planting, along with fresh garlic scapes, pickled garlic scapes and garlic powder.
“I like eating it. I like just growing it, too,” Ahrndt said of the popular herb that’s been consumed for thousands of years. “Kind of fun.”
Their products are sold at the Minnesota Garlic Festival in Hutchinson every August and on their website, harvestmoongarlic.com. Licensed to sell directly to customers, the Ahrndt family hopes to open a store at their farm in the near future.
On Sept. 22, the business partners planted nine varieties of garlic on Ahrndt’s farm along State Highway 22, between Litchfield and Hutchinson. An expected 3,000-clove crop should be ready to harvest by the Fourth of July.
Ahrndt and Neff have used organic growing methods since their first clove. “We believe in eating and growing fresh, healthy and safe produce for our family, friends and customers. This is why we grow our gourmet garlic using all-natural practices, which means no chemicals of any sort, ever,” their website states.
The king of bad-breath culprits, garlic is a dynamic culinary spice known for its palatable taste and nutritional health benefits. One of the oldest cultivated plants in the world, garlic is a plant in the Allium (onion) family and is closely related to the onion, shallot, leek and chive. Each segment of a garlic bulb is called a clove. There are up to a dozen cloves in each of Harvest Moon Garlic’s bulbs, give or take.
Contrary to most crops, garlic is planted in the fall, as it requires cold treatment for its roots to develop and produces numerous bulbs during its long growing season, Ahrndt said. By spring, its roots can support the rapid leaf growth that is necessary to form large bulbs.
“It’s fun to see it come up in the spring,” Ahrndt said of their planting schedule, opposite traditional farmers. “It’s one of the first things we can actually do something with.”
Ahrndt and Neff, former high school classmates, have planted upwards of 23,000 garlic plants and 15 varieties on a quarter-acre plot on the Ahrndt farm, with help from friend Adam Falk. But preparations for Ahrndt’s October wedding and a house remodel forced them to cut back this year.
With a smaller yield anticipated, Ahrndt and Neff shouldn’t have trouble moving their product from the soil to the tables of their customers next year. Their 2018 yield has already sold out.
FROM HOBBY TO BUSINESS VENTURE
The hobby-turned-business-venture began when Ahrndt attended the Minnesota Garlic Festival in Howard Lake, where he purchased garlic and was introduced to the fundamentals of growing the plant.
Once he tried fresh garlic, Ahrndt said he couldn’t go back to eating store-bought versions.
To Ahrndt and Neff, garlic seemed an seemed an exotic plant that couldn’t be grown by northerners. “I didn’t even know you could grow garlic up here,” Ahrndt said.
To their astonishment, they learned that some varieties of garlic actually do better in a cooler climate. Intrigued, Ahrndt planted a small patch of garlic, and waited. Not only was the plant tolerant of Minnesota weather, it thrived in it.
“They all grew really well, so I pretty much just replanted all of it,” Ahrndt said.
The men initially grew five varieties as a hobby, sharing their produce with family and friends. Several more successful growing seasons followed, and their yields grew exponentially. Soon, a business was established as part of a local effort to decrease U.S. dependence on foreign food imports.
Most imported garlic, Ahrndt said, comes from Argentina and China.
“Tasting fresh, local garlic is quite a change from what you’re used to in the store,” Ahrndt said. “It’s nice to know where your food comes from.”
The name of their business, Ahrndt said, pays homage to their families’ longstanding history of farmers and their traditions.
Harvest Moon refers to the first full moon closest to the autumnal equinox. To northern farmers, this full moon was a blessing before modern technology. Without the aid of tractors with bright lights, farmers were able to continue harvesting crops after sunset by the light of the harvest moon.
The Ahrndts also raise a herd of grass-fed Angus beef cattle.
“Just trying to carry on the farming tradition,” Ahrndt said.
Each planting season — typically in late September or early October — begins with a portion of their crop saved from the previous year — typically the largest bulbs. “We basically save all our own seed,” Ahrndt said.
Saving some of their own crop, Ahrndt explained, provides genetic replicas of their garlic, helping to provide product consistency. It also helps reduce the chance of disease.
Ahrndt and Neff prepare the soil for garlic cloves by plowing the ground and spreading manure. Garlic, Ahrndt said, prefers a loose, fertile soil. The salvaged crop from the summer harvest is broken apart into multiple cloves that are planted in the black dirt/loam soil and grown into new bulbs with the shoots facing upward. Planting garlic cloves by hand in their upright position — the pointed end facing up — helps roots to grow more effectively, Ahrndt said.
About an inch of topsoil covers the tip of the garlic plants, planted about six inches apart. Mulch, comprised of oat straw, is spread on top of freshly planted cloves to protect them from frost, to suppress weeds and to retain moisture. The different varieties of garlic are labeled with wooden markers. With four to six inches of mulch covering the cloves, there’s no need to plant them deeper, Ahrndt said.
Last month’s planting, a three-person job, took about a day to complete, compared to about four or five days for 20,000 cloves. Assisting Ahrndt and Neff is Adam Falk. For every foot of soil, they plant about 10 cloves.
Once planting is complete, their work is done until late spring, when flower stems are harvested. “It’s fun to plant something and not have to do anything for months,” Ahrndt said.
GARLIC THAT KEEPS ON GIVING
Ahrndt and Neff grow primarily hardneck garlic varieties, which tend to do best in colder climates as they are more winter hardy. Softneck garlic normally grows best in climates with hot summers and mild winters, so they’ve tried only a limited number of those varieties.
Hardneck varieties tend to form fewer cloves per bulb than softneck varieties, but the cloves themselves tend to be a bit larger. Hardneck varieties develop an edible flower stalk, called a scape, which eventually develops tiny bulbils at its top end. Under ground, around this central flowering stem, are cloves wrapped together in a papery sheath, or “neck,” forming the bulb of garlic.
In the spring, as warmer temperatures arrive, shoots emerge through the ground. Ahrndt and Neff remove the mulch from the sprouting garlic so the shoots have an easier time coming up.
Scapes, or flower stalks, are removed in late May or early June to make more room for the garlic bulb to grow larger and stronger, Ahrndt explained. Similar to green onions, scapes must be cut from hardneck plants before harvest, as the production of bulbils can rob energy and nutrients from the plant and result in smaller garlic heads at the end of the growing season.
Some of the hottest days of the year entail the hardest work for these garlic enthusiasts.
Garlic is typically harvested in early July, around Independence Day, though a cold spring, such as the one of late, can delay harvest to the end of the month.
Ahrndt and Neff check to see if the bottom leaves have started to dry and begin to pull a few plants of each variety, taste-testing the flavors of the raw plants.
After they are removed from the ground, the plants are hung to dry for three weeks. Curing is an important step, as it helps the garlic keep longer.
“The curing process drives everything back into the bulb,” Ahrndt said of the nutrients from the stock.
Once dry, they remove the stalk and roots, stripping the garlic to bulb form, before preparing it for sale in various forms.
Harvest Moon converts some of its garlic to powder form using a commercial peeler. Several of the small bulbs are used to make additive-free garlic powder.
They also pickle the garden scapes. In its finished form, the scapes taste like garlicky/dilly beans.
“Basically another value-added product we can do,” Ahrndt said.
Ahrndt likes to compare garlic to apples.
“All apples taste like apples, but some are sweet, some are tart,” he said.
The same is true for garlic. Some can be hot, like a pepper. Other varieties are sweet or mild. And some become sweeter when cooked.
Raw garlic, Ahrndt noted, has a pungent smell and flavor, so it is more often cooked before it’s eaten. However, cooking garlic can sometimes diminish its health benefits. According to internet research, garlic has been used for medicinal purposes that include boosting the immune system, reducing blood pressure and lowering cholesterol.
The greatest reward comes when the garlic is ready to be shared with friends, family and customers.
Harvest Moon’s garlic is cured to perfection just in time for the Minnesota Garlic Festival, the kickoff to their selling season. Ahrndt enjoys visiting with other growers at the festival. All have their personal favorites. For Ahrndt, it’s Purple Glazer, an attractive and excellent roasting garlic that holds texture and flavor. For Neff, it’s Leah, an “all-around great garlic” that boasts a rich flavor with a warm-to-hot level of heat and “a very long, pleasant finish,” he said. Leah tastes great raw but is also wonderful in salads, soups or sauces, he said.