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Garlic Farmers Tout Boutique Bulbs

September 10, 2003

OCCIDENTAL, Calif. (AP) _ The scent of Chester Aaron’s breath, blue jeans and solar-heated cottage could repel a vampire, but food snobs are sniffing out the 80-year-old’s organic garlic farm.

The former English professor is the charter member of a growing group of farmers hoping to transform the pungent bulb into haute cuisine.

Aaron and his cohorts, among them a retired stock broker and famed chefs, are promoting new varieties of garlic _ spicy Transylvanian, mellow Cajun Red _ that are more flavorful and possibly pest-resistant than the standard ``California Late″ variety which dominates America’s produce aisles.

Bringing to neighborhood stores and restaurants garlic that is now available almost exclusively by mail or at organic farmers markets could generate the snob appeal and price premium similar to that of artisan bread, heirloom tomatoes and microbrew beer.

``Most people think garlic is garlic, and I’ve had arguments about this with great chefs,″ Aaron, author of ‘Garlic is Life,’ said under the shade of his redwood grove on a rural Sonoma County farm. ``But once they taste the difference, most people are hooked, and they don’t want to go back to California Late.″

Aaron and other boutique growers have been trying to popularize their offerings for more than a decade, but most restaurateurs and wholesalers usually turn up their noses at the costly cloves.

Few boutique growers say they make a profit from garlic alone.

Many artisan garlic varieties are finicky. A single clove may yield a huge bulb one year, the next a tiny cluster with cloves so small they’re nearly impossible to peel. Some varieties, native to Eastern Europe or Siberia, produce unexpectedly large, small, pungent or bland bulbs in Midwestern soil or under the Texas sun. Garlic, with a genetic origin traced to modern-day Uzbekistan, often takes years to adjust to new climates.

Many prized artisan varieties, such as Asian Tempest, are ``hardneck″ bulbs with a stem that’s difficult to braid. Their shelf life is only a few months. A knowledgeable farmer may spend hours weeding and curing, cleaning and preparing to mail delicate plants to aficionados.

By contrast, agribusinesses headquartered near Gilroy produce a ``softneck″ that workers _ typically Mexican immigrants who earn $8.50 an hour _ quickly pick, braid and funnel through mechanical cleaners. The uniformly sized bulbs arrive at grocery stores clean and white, with a shelf life of nine months or more.

California Late sells wholesale for 60 cents to 80 cents per pound. Artisan garlic sells for as little as $5 per pound, but the rarest bulbs go for $20 per pound.

``We’re trying to hit little niche markets,″ said Aaron Whealy of Decorah, Iowa-based Seed Savers Exchange, which began selling artisan garlic in 1999 and now sells 12 varieties for $12.95 per pound. ``The California variety is so cheap to produce that unless you’re selling 500 tons, you can’t compete.″

But a growing cadre of growers _ and fans affectionately dubbed ``garlic geeks″ _ say designer garlic is ripe for the mainstream.

The average American ate 3.1 pounds of garlic in 1999, nearly three times the consumption in 1989, thanks in part to an influx of garlic-eating immigrants from Southeast Asia and Mexico. Demand for garlic grew faster than demand for any other vegetable in the 1990s, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Many growers say their best customers are immigrants from Korea, Eastern Europe and Mexico. They pine for garlic from their hometowns _ varieties often more nutty, buttery and complex than California Late, characterized almost exclusively by its overpowering heat.

Many popular varieties, such as Spanish Roja, Shang Tung Purple and Russian Red Toch, are spicy but quick-fading, so heat doesn’t linger or overpower other ingredients.

``Before I started growing it, I didn’t like garlic _ it ate me before I ate it,″ said Darrell Merrell, a retired stock broker who began planting garlic in 1996 on his family farm in Tulsa, Okla.

Merrell, founder of Tulsa’s annual The Garlic Is Life Symposium & Festival, now plants 200 varieties and routinely pops raw cloves.

Growers say they need a marketing campaign to boost awareness. Aaron jokes about hiring a Hollywood star to serve as ``allium sativum spokesman.″ Merrell encourages restaurants to include variety names on menus _ not ``Shrimp in Garlic Sauce″ but ``Shrimp with Endangered Puslinch Garlic.″

The growth of agribusiness may also turn artisan varieties into kitchen staples, scientists say.

White mold attacked Gilroy in the late 1990s, killing almost all the region’s garlic. Growers are now battling ``rust,″ a fungal leaf disease that turns garlic and other plants red.

Planting diverse strains could improve resistance, said Dr. Philipp W. Simon, a horticulture professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

``In agriculture, like life in general, diversity has some merits,″ Simon said. ``I wouldn’t be surprised if eventually we find a suitable replacement for California Late, and it will probably come from progressive people who have moved beyond mass-produced crops.″

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