Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Breaking The Camel

Laying straw, or some other mulch, is the last activity of the garlic grower's season. It's the warm blanket laid over each tucked in clove as the cold air descends on the region for winter. What I am asking now is, is this necessary?

I used straw at the upstate farm last season. It did well to keep weeds down in springtime, although it did make weeds more difficult to spot. Straw also keeps moisture steady, although that was less of a positive thing in the wet soils of the region.  The straw moderates temperature extremes, although last winter hardly saw a hard freeze. Finally, occasional winds took the lighter, thinner-stalked straw and blew it a good distance from their beds.

The farm in Amagansett has much better soil drainage, although it does a decent job of holding water for a time. I plan to use hoeing for weed management over last season's stoop and pull method -greater scale demands this. Straw, while keeping weeds down, will also make it harder to use a hoe. It also happens to be breezy almost every day in between the two waters, and storms will make it downright windy. You can see in the above photo how I've used twine to attempt to hold down the straw I placed on our test row. There are no wind breaks at the farm and it's easy to imagine the straw lodged against the deer fence two hundred feet away.

The argument for straw mulch then rests solely on minimizing frost heave and maintaining soil moisture in spring time. Assuming it rains decently, say once a week, I shouldn't have to concern myself too much with soil moisture, but one can never predict and should take precaution. Any straw I do bring in will need to be truly straw, not hay, and certainly not filled with weed seeds. Bales I bought last November for five bucks each were left field side for three weeks. Each sprouted. I returned to Agway's ten dollar bales, and all did well.

There is one more argument to be made -cost. I'll need roughly 35 bales to cover the rows that require mulching. I've been given prices ranging from 5.50 to 8 dollars a bale. Two hundred eighty dollars for mulch is almost acceptable, but then there is the cost of getting the straw to the farm. I would have to rent a truck at the base price, plus 99 cents per mile, and gasoline and insurance. Now we are looking at possibly five hundred dollars for the straw mulch.

One might think, well, to protect one's investment, isn't it worth the five hundred? That depends. I've planted 6834 garlic cloves. Assume rather foolishly that each and every one of those cloves grows and stores perfectly well. From that quantity we need to subtract roughly 1750 perfectly grown and stored bulbs for next season's seed stock. That leaves a 5084 perfect bulbs left to sell to the garlic loving public.

Before the new year, and without paying myself a dime for any labor both physical and mental, nor factoring in vehicle expenses beyond gasoline, nor any costs associated with a sales location beyond my website, my costs will be $4544. I can expect to shell out another $1000 in gasoline between the new year and harvest's end, another $200 in organic fertilizer, another $400 in tractor, mowing and cover-cropping payments, and an unknown sum for barn space rental for garlic curing and also, extra labor. I tend to imagine the barn rental coming in at $1500 for three months and that number could be a total fantasy. My best guess total is now $7650 for the season.

It is true that I laid out a big sum for seed this year, and next year I shouldn't have to. So, lets spread the seed cost over three years, costing me only $860 this year. That makes our break-even number, a number made up completely of costs minus any personal labor, vehicle expenditures or sales costs, total $6790.

Okay, now let's figure the total price each perfectly grown and stored garlic bulb must cost to make that number back during sales season. Each bulb will need to sell for roughly $1.34 a piece just to recoup my costs. That's not so bad, right? Keith Stewart sells his rocambole at Union Square for $10 to $12 dollars a pound, depending on the time of the season, with 6-7 bulbs per pound depending on size ($1.43 - $1.71).

But I'll need to add some money to that so I can actually pay for labor. Let's imagine I am okay making $10 an hour for my effort and let's also imagine that my time driving to and from the farm (2.5 hours each way), website time, sales time, shipping time, packing time, curing and cleaning time are factored out of the cost. I calculate that I will spend roughly 170 hours working at the farm this growing season, adding $1700 to my cost at $10 per hour, for a new total of $8490.

That makes each perfectly grown and stored bulb worth roughly $1.67. Is that how much you would pay for a locally grown, organic, specialty variety garlic you cannot get anywhere else? Probably not. You will probably have to pay more. Because there will be sales costs, and vehicle expenditures, and labor costs beyond the $10 per hour farmer, and barn rental may be more, and most importantly -there will not be 5084 perfectly grown and stored garlic bulbs at sales time. Unless I am really, really lucky.

I hope that you can see that I'm not doing this for the money. The cost associated with each bulb, at this stage anyhow, is only an attempt to recoup the costs of my endeavor -let's call it an attempt to be expense neutral. Given this, and I've hemmed and hawed on this for two weeks now, I think I've decided not to straw mulch the field. I'll spend a little extra on right and left handed hoes of the highest quality instead. And, as always, I'll hope for rain -just not too much.


  1. Consider it an experiment, data gathering. You'll learn something either way. And I hope your gamble pays off.

    1. Ellen, you are right. It is an experiment in every way. Sales are a way to support the experiment. As much as I would like to compete with lower cost bulbs, it simply can't be that way at this scale.


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