Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Bad Seed

The difficulty of getting garlic bulbs for seed purposes spawned my initial idea to grow enough garlic to get seed quality garlic out to Mid-Atlantic gardeners. Much of the trouble with garlic supply, I now believe, is due to the high prices farmers are asking. They are pushing the limits of their quality control in order to pull in as much as possible from this high dollar crop. Over a certain number, quality garlic is hard to handle. Additionally, there are terrible pests of garlic and since farmers can only know their own field well, when they pull  from neighboring farms to compensate for the demand, they risk spreading these pests around the country. I've gotten mostly good seed and some lousy -all at very high prices. Read on to see how this seedy saga plays out...

August 15:

The American Midwest has been struck with a garlic growing disaster. Many farms lost their entire crop. No, it wasn't the drought (although that affected many), but another weather-related problem. It's called Phytoplasma and is spread by the leafhoppers that were incredibly abundant at an earlier date than usual this year. Many seed outlets (like Seed Savers Exchange) that source from Midwestern farms have had to relay that their seed cannot be fully trusted, yet it is still offered for sale! I sourced some seed last year from a Midwestern farm. This year I did not due to spotty performance in the field.

September 22:
I received my replacement garlic tonight, in a large white, red and blue priority box. I picked it up, felt a rolling, a ba-dumping. Upon opening the box I found a single layer of newspaper covering yet another pile of loose bulbs, except, unlike the last time, this large box had considerably less bulbs so that they were free to roll around while traveling across the country. Really? I mean after the complaint and the return of 70% of my three hundred dollar order, you really just put a piece of newspaper on top and call it fixed?

Really, they did. I sorted the bulbs, pulling out the dented, bruised, nicked and gouged. Nearly 25% of them, and I also feel shorted on the weight. There may be enough customers out there, but I ordered a lot -15 pounds of high-priced garlic! And to mention that I sent the offending bulbs back at my cost after being double charged for shipping the first time. Yet all that would have been healed had they just put a little extra effort into that box traveling cross country in planes and trucks with turbulence and bumps.

So I sent another email, understanding that I'm testing the farmer's patience, stating that there was again damage, attaching some photos of said damage, and that I would be willing to pay two dollars more a pound to get my seed bulbs in perfect shape. And left it at that.

To compound the grief, I also received another order, for a similar amount from another farm out west, just yesterday. While the box was packed well and tight with newspaper and bulbs in paper bags, there was a considerable amount of gouge damage on those as well! Sharp, bias cut stems the culprit, must have happened in the warehouse or packing.

Took photos, sent them to that farmer, to which she replied today that she would make it right. Given was the very same reason provided by the other farm. Hot and dry in the barn and a newbie in the ranks. Hot and dry makes the wrappers fall off, while the newbie throws garlic around like its the cheap stuff at the grocery store.

I received seed from both these farms last year and all was perfectly well. So what's going on this year? I can't say, but here's what the second farmer did: she offered to replace five pounds of the damaged garlic even though I only lost four pounds. Yes, thank you -you're telling me that my business is important with something of value, not just words.

Meanwhile, the other farmer is now blaming it on NYC postal workers' uncharacteristic rough handling. I say, if you know (or even think) that to be the case -protect your merchandise with better packaging. I explain this in another email. The farmer says they will ship out another 2 pounds to make up for the damage that day, but also that no one has ever complained of this problem.

October 1:

I sent out an email to the above farmer because I had not yet received the replacement. Priority boxes tend to move pretty fast, and at least 10 days had past. The farmer said she had sent it long ago. I asked for a tracking number, she said there was none. The final email said she would issue a refund check. Honestly, I have no idea what is going on over there, but I get the sense that there is chaos, that the business model of garlic seed is under stress that I cannot see from my vantage point.

September 29:

After my day informing the garlic curious public about the differences in garlic at the Dumbo Arts Festival, I headed up to Saugerties to visit (for the first time) the Hudson Valley Garlic Festival. Garlic Festivals are sprouting up everywhere these days, for better or worse I cannot say. This one's been around for awhile. I thought I should check out the product and pay a visit to one of the founding members of NY's Garlic Seed Foundation, David Stern.

After attending his lecture, which provided the basics for gardeners, I made way to the GSF tent to ask some serious questions. I let them know that I was growing commercially, albeit on a small scale. My first question: how do I find garlic seed I can trust? To make this long story short, the answer was almost unequivocally -you can't. In fact, this crowd behind the table seemed at best cynical about the prospect. When I said that I bought retail-priced seed from Pacific NW growers, I was practically laughed at. Then told I shouldn't have. Most of these guys had never heard of these Pacific North Western farms. Why would they, they're in the farming business, and what farmer would spend 20 bucks a pound for seed. In fact, they're unsure about getting 9 bucks for their own garlic seed.

On their table was a book I've read, well-known as the "garlic growers bible" written by Ron Engeland. Now, I was well aware that his farm was no longer his farm, and that it was now in the hands of another owner, another nameless owner. Although this made me uneasy, I still bought nearly 45%, of my seed from this farm. After all, this is the farm that wrote the garlic grower's bible, their prices are very high, and they farm in a quarantined county of Washington State. So I pestered Mr. Stern when he emphatically stated that I should not buy from that farm in Washington. Why not? But also, hey, you've got that farm's book on your selling table!

Well, says he, that farm is sourcing from all over and you can't trust it. Their business is apples now, and by the way, what are they charging for garlic seed anyhow? What?! I wouldn't ever pay that much, and certainly not from them. So, I ask, what happened to Mr. Engeland, the author of the "bible?" He sells irrigation equipment. Oh.

Back, then, to the question of who can be trusted. I pester Mr. Stern, director of the Garlic Seed Foundation, about who to buy seed from. He answers that the foundation's website has a list of seed suppliers. I counter that it also says at the top of their pages to beware the Bloat Nematode which has been found all over New York State. So who can I trust? What about here, at the festival? I've seen lots of lousy looking garlic here and hardly a few who's product looks reputable as seed. He sent me to a couple of farms, one of which had sloppy product, and the other a farm that only sold Spanish Roja. The Roja looked decent, but the farmer said he had problems with Fusarium Wilt, the disease which happens to mimic both the symptoms and timing of Bloat Nematode.

After engaging in a long conversation with that farmer, I felt convinced enough to buy a couple of pounds, although I am shrinking away from that confidence now as I read all the agricultural extension reports about the dreaded nematode. I then visited another farmer who kindly labeled his two types of garlic as seed or table. I returned to the Garlic Seed Foundation to inquire with Mr. Stern about his attitude toward that particular farm which, incidentally, proudly displayed the logo of the Garlic Seed Foundation on his banner. Stern said he doesn't know, or is not familiar with that farm. So I mentioned that he was a member of the foundation he directs, to which he replied that this fact is meaningless, membership in his organization has no bearing on the quality of the product. Oh.

Wow. So where to go now? I went back to speak with that farmer. He, as convincing as any, said his seed was good, but no farmer would ever guarantee their garlic and neither would he. I understand this point, and I bought three pounds. Mind you, this NYS "seed" is going for $8-10 a pound, nowhere near the retail price of Pacific NW seed I find in web-based catalogues. I am beginning to separate price alone as an indicator of quality. New York farmers would like everyone to think this way, but I also sense frustration in not being able to accept selling "seed" garlic for 20 bucks a pound. In fact, they're mad about it, yet can't seem to meet whatever mysterious profile is expected in order to command those high prices. Still the nagging question -which farms can you trust for seed?

Finally, I return to the Garlic Seed Foundation one last time. I engage another farmer behind the stand about varieties and storage lengths. She said that at one time she tried to grow all the varieties, but soon after gave up and settled on the same two varieties everyone grows -Porcelain and Rocambole, but mostly Porcelain. I mentioned that I would be growing on Long Island, which has a different soil and climate profile than upstate. She asks where, and I name the farm near which I grow and the farmer who works it. At once, Mr. Stern appears and casts doubt on the whole affair: "That land has nematode," he hollars.

I let him know that the farmer informed me of the problem he had after buying seed from a Canadian source (often it is claimed that Canada was the vector for the nematode). He never indicated that there was any nematode issues on the land that I am leasing, or that it has even been farmed in the last 10 years. In fact, this farmer had told me that he recently bought seed from Mr. Stern at $9 a pound, a price he had a hard time swallowing. I started to wonder if there were issues between these two farmers, or maybe all of them.

Mr. Stern also sold seed stock to Johnny's Seeds for $9 a pound. You know them, the seed catalogue based in Maine. He seemed angry that they resold his garlic at a high price of $18 a pound. He also said he wouldn't deal with them any longer since Johnny's had knowingly distributed nematode infested seed to customers and never issued any statements to the fact. I do not know if this is true, but it's what he said.

I feel like I visited the garlic seed kitchen and found a mess. After seeing the mess, doubt has been cast on every corner of production -the soil, the seed, the integrity of farmers. Garlic's inability to produce true seed is a curse on its cultivation. With less than half my seed in my possession, and only a month to go before planting, my idea seems more speculative than ever. I've been culling out bad cloves or bulbs from all the seed I receive. Only a sharp eye and beginner's luck are in my corner now.

October 3:

I received a box of garlic from another seed source in the Pacific Northwest. Fifty percent was just what I was expecting, good-sized clean garlic. The other 50% were too small for me to call seed, and the largest among them were beginning to dessicate. They were, however, clean and undamaged. The price for 10 pounds of Spanish Roja garlic is over $205 dollars, but the bulbs look like they will not produce good sized bulbs. Meanwhile, I'm culling out the bad cloves from those sizable Roja bulbs.

October 4:

I received my replacement supply from the Pacific Northwest farmer who offered to replace 5 lbs to my 4. They far exceeded my expectations. Not only did they put in a nice note, they bagged each bundle and, this is hard to believe, individually wrapped each and every extra bulb in newspaper! But they didn't stop there -this farm offered me a bag of Romanian Red cloves to try out. This is a farm that I will continue to deal with and their prices are exactly the same as all the other farms. I will send them a warm letter.

October 6:

I unwrapped each individually-wrapped replacement bulb today and, as would be expected, each was in perfect condition with all wrappers intact. Shipping loose bulbs is never a good idea at this price. Meanwhile, I've pretty much decided that 100% of the remaining bulbs from the first farm cannot be used. They are shrinking at an incredible rate in their almost wrapper-free condition. Now I believe that they may have not been grown well since Porcelain varieties are known to store fairly long. I am now debating whether or not to eat the cost of this loss $(236) or begin emailing the farmer (who already was tired of dealing with me) that I want my money back. Not good.

I'm also waiting on new seed, the final and largest component of this year's stock, from the farm that David Stern of the Garlic Seed Foundation warned me against, but only 5 months too late to be of value.

October 9:

I am concerned about the dessication of the German Hardy bulbs, both the undamaged originals and the replacements. The damage conversation pushed this problem to the back burner, but it is still a month to go before planting and the bulbs are shrinking fast. I emailed the farm, said that I simply cannot plant these bulbs as my prior year's experience tells me these will fail in the field. I did not ask for my money back, but simply opened the door so the farmer would have the chance to offer it. That's what they did. I now have ten pounds of shrinking seed garlic to consume or toss.

Still waiting for the bulk order from Washington State.

Update: October 11

Received seed from the final source and most look good. There was physical damage to some artichoke varieties and gouges on some cloves of the Purple Stripe variety. Japanese, much sought after and sold only in limited quantities, had some moldy cloves and physical damage. I sent an email with pictures to that farm. Given the quantity of seed I ordered from this farm, the damage I consider minor.

Still waiting for a refund from the earlier farm who sent damaged bulbs multiple times.


  1. Very interesting (sorry not to leave a pithier reaction).

    Are there garlic forums, etc? Publications? This should be on and in them.

    1. No need for pith, its already pithyful.
      Publications? Well, there's the garlic seed foundation.
      Garden web I gather, but I'm not a member. Daves Garden too I suppose.
      But nothing garlic specific I do not think.


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