Sorting & selling garlic

We take a very analytical approach to our garlic, in part because it is both expensive and valuable to grow. Here’s a walk through how we plan, acquire, and plant, and manage our garlic.

Good organic seed garlic, such as that we get from Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa, can cost from $2.50-$3.50 per head. While garlic can be gotten cheaper than that, we’ve stuck with Seed Savers for several reasons. A, their garlic is grown in Iowa and so is more likely to be adapted to our climate than garlic from, say, Washington state. B, we appreciate the work they do preserving heirloom garlics and wish to support their diversity. C, their seed garlic has consistently been very high quality and we feel we’re getting what we pay for.

That being said, it is expensive and garlic is reasonably easy to save for replanting, so every year we move toward saving more of our own. This has the dual benefits of saving us quite a bit of money, and also allowing us to select our garlic strains for the best adaption to our unique conditions.

This year (fall of 2008, actually) we planted twelve varieties of garlic, in varying amounts. Some of these were purchased, and some were saved from 2008. When we harvested the garlic in June, we sorted each variety into four grades by size and quality:

From left to right: Seed garlic, A garlic, B garlic, and sub-B. Seed grade is the largest and best-formed; we save this for replanting, although it would be the most lucrative to sell. A and B are market-grade heads, in which A is full-size and well formed, and B is still high quality but smaller than we’d like. Sub-B is anything that’s deformed, unusually small, or otherwise not up to our market standards. The photo is vague, at least at a small scale, but hopefully you can see the rough gradient from left to right.

Above, you see our yields for 2009. We had more Bs than we would have liked for some varieties, but overall it was a good year. The 200 saved seed heads will save us somewhere from $500-$700 on seed cost, though we’re buying some to keep expanding our plantings. The As and Bs are the garlic customers see at market, while the sub-Bs form our winter supply. Figuring on averaging two heads of garlic per week from September through March, that’s about 60 heads needed, so we’re close enough. Below, you see some of our seed garlic and our winter B garlic hung in a back room of the house for storage:
Finally, consider the As and the Bs. We sell As at $2/head, and Bs at $1.50/head. Just this past week we ran out of As for all but Shvelisi, and so have started bringing Bs instead, so if you noticed a price drop, that’s why. The garlic is the same quality, just a bit smaller, so you pay a bit less. We find it easier to sell all the As first, then start in on the Bs, rather than having a more confusing stand with multiple prices and sizes.

So if you do the math, when we’ve sold all the As and Bs by the end of the year, we’ll have made around $720 gross. Add in sales of early garlic scapes and some green garlic, and it comes out to around $900 gross. Take away the $350 we spent on seed garlic, and you get about $550 net, not counting time, labor, mulch, marketing, and so on. This is why we charge what we do; $500 net is not a lot for 8 months of care. Our costs will go down every year as we save more seed, but that will just allow us a more reasonable profit margin on it. Good thing we love to grow garlic!

Update: In all this, I didn’t mention rot. A certain percentage of heads will go bad; genetic variability means there are always a few clunkers. This risk increases the longer they’re stored, obviously, which is partly why we sell the best ones first. I mention this in part because we do our best to check sale heads for signs of rot, but it’s not always obvious at the surface, and we make mistakes. A recent customer noted that he’d had a partially bad one, which I happily replaced. Just another fact of life with produce.

2 thoughts on “Sorting & selling garlic

  1. I actually thought you had more heads than that. Once you have more of your own seed garlic, would you want to plant more garlic? Would that help the overall profitability of the crop?Garlic prices vary here in Toronto. The farm we buy from has what they call their "Global Garlic Project" and Daniel sells at market for $3/head or 2 for $5. I'm not sure which heads he keeps for seed size-wise, but those who pre-order get the larger heads (at $3/head).

  2. Joshua,We're expanding the plantings every year, up to a point. We also don't believe in becoming over-dependent on one crop, so will stop at some point regardless of how many we could grow. We are doing more next year than last year, as we're still ordering some extra seed heads to complement what we saved this year. Stopping is also a good idea because other folks at market look around at see what's succeeding. We were about the only ones growing diverse garlic last year, but this year there were at least five other farms offering garlic, so our weekly sales went down. So it would be foolish to overexpand when we're not sure of a consistent market. Better to use the extra space to grow other things.