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Make small acreage pay: Grow garlic

Growers in New York and Michigan share their experiences.

Whether you’re a small-acreage landowner wanting to break into farming or a large farmer wanting to diversify to manage risk or bring in the next generation, garlic farming may be a good fit.

Ed Fraser started growing garlic on his property southwest of Rochester, N.Y., in 1993. Today, he has 10 acres and buys from six other surrounding growers to market both seed stock for planting and table stock for eating across the U.S.

“It’s a high-profit specialty crop — you can’t plant an acre of corn and expect to pull $10,000 out of it,” he says. “It’s a good way to make a living, although I’m not getting rich on it, and that’s OK.”

During the busy season, Fraser gets up at 5:30 a.m. and is often still making shipping labels or doing other chores before bed sometime around 10 p.m. “But it’s my passion, I love what I am doing,” says Fraser, who owns Fraser’s Garlic Farm in Churchville, N.Y. Close to 98% of his sales are for seed stock, and New York is the fifth-largest garlic producing state in the country.

It's a full-time job for Fraser, although his wife, Mary, helps when needed. “She’s a librarian, and that’s her passion,” he says.

When Rob Orchard and his wife, Marlo, bought their property in Middleville, Mich., five years ago, it had 5 acres of grass. “I like mowing … but not that much,” Rob says.

He planted more than 200 trees and established a 2-acre wildflower habitat, but that wasn’t enough. “A neighbor of mine was growing mushrooms and garlic, and he thought my acreage was perfect for garlic,” Rob says.

His property was right-sized, his soils were good, and it didn’t require a huge investment. “I knew I could figure out how to grow, process and market it, and hopefully make my money back,” he says.

Rob is going into his third year of planting garlic beginning in November and was able to turn a profit on his first crop harvested in 2020. He bought his initial seed stock of 225 pounds from BJ Gourmet Garlic in Ohio, and now uses his own production for seed.

In a rural setting surrounded by woods, wildlife is abundant. “We have deer walk through here all the time, but we don’t have fencing on the garlic because it is deer-resistant — they don’t like it,” Rob says. “If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be growing it.”

“Growing garlic doesn’t require a huge amount of time, but when it’s time, you have to dedicate yourself to it,” says Rob, who has a full-time job working for an automotive manufacturing company, while Marlo is a full-time graphic designer.

In his first year, Rob borrowed his neighbor’s tractor and enlisted friends and family to help plant. He used a planting tool pulled behind a tractor to create 3-inch holes every 6 inches for the garlic cloves, which are planted pointy side up. Rows are about 12 inches apart. He’s using a quarter-acre to plant 10,000 cloves mulched with straw for weed suppression and moisture control.

Hardneck garlic (grown in more Northern states), unlike softneck garlic, needs to overwinter.

glorious garlic infographic

Ed Fraser plants in October. When the crop comes up in the spring, attention goes into weed control. In early summer, hardneck garlics put up a scape, which is a curly stem out the top.

The scapes, which are reminiscent of a scallion but with a garlicky flavor, are removed so the bulbs will grow bigger. Otherwise, the plants put energy into growing a flower and not the bulb.

Both growers sell the scapes, which are available during a very limited window, to fresh markets, consumers and community-supported agriculture programs.

Garlic is pulled in July, and Rob hangs it for two to three weeks in his barn for curing, which is important to extend storage. Ed uses racks for drying inside high tunnels with fans. He has a brusher machine that cleans the outside of the garlic, readying it for sale and shipment.

During planting, de-scaping and harvesting, Ed has a crew of four people that assist, and a part-time employee helps with packing and shipping.

In addition to his nephew, Rob recruits students from Caledonia High School’s agriscience and FFA class, as well as students from various Facebook groups.

Each variety is then sorted — larger bulbs for seed stock and smaller bulbs for culinary — and stored in a dark, cool environment.

Weather challenges

Like all crops, weather presents some of the biggest challenges. This year’s dry spring meant Ed had to set up an irrigation system. After using that for a couple weeks, the weather went the opposite direction and rain didn’t stop. However, because he mulches heavily with hay, it helps not only to keep moisture in, but also aids in water runoff during heavy downpours.

“Fortunately, we had a little break right around harvesttime, and I was able to get in and undercut the garlic, which is a blade pulled behind a tractor cutting roots to allow for it to be pulled easier,” he says. “I ended up with really good yields.”

Ed consistently sells out of product, so about 15 years ago, he came up with the idea of bringing other farms on board under one marketing arm. It was a way to expand the business without expanding his acreage.

“During the growing season, it's very difficult to keep your eyes on everything, and you may not have access to labor at critical times,” he says. “For that amount, you would probably have to mechanize more, which beats up the garlic, opening it up to molds, fungus and other things.”

With other growers contributing, the load is spread out. “My thing is to consistently provide a high-quality product,” he says.

Six other farmers, with a handshake agreement, look to Ed for technical assistance whenever needed and visits throughout the year. “We’re all friends,” he says. “We talk to each other constantly. It's a very positive business model.”

He’s on the road a lot, with the farthest farm being a couple hours away.

On Fraser’s Garlic Farm, there are between 60,000 and 70,000 plants growing annually, while the group ranges between 300,000 and 400,000 plants.

Part of the harvest process includes sending samples to labs for testing, most importantly for nematodes, which would prevent the garlic from being sold as seed stock.

Product is weighed at each farm before it leaves. “I pay growers right there,” Ed says.

He has several varieties, including the popular German White, German Extra Hardy, Music, German Red, Chesnok, which is a purple-striped garlic, and many others, including specialty varieties.

Rob has five varieties, and more than half of his sales are direct market from the farm. Both growers use the internet and social media for marketing and sales, and both are raising organic crops, with Ed being certified.

Despite his success, Rob is planning to downsize some this year, as Marlo has osteoarthritis. “It hurts her hands to do a lot of the labor, so she can't do a lot of work, and we’re continuously trying to find people to help us out,” Rob explains. “Also, to properly rotate my ground, I need to either downsize or buy more property, which may be a possibility in the future.”

He says garlic farming is proof that you can make money off a small operation. “You don’t have to have a lot of acreage and equipment to make some money,” Rob says.

Nod to local

Ed’s favorite garlic is Jovak, which is not a common variety. “It has a wonderful flavor and is quite hot raw — I eat a lot of raw garlic,” he says.

No matter the variety, Ed says local garlic is completely different than what’s available in grocery stores, mainly sourced from China. “They use a whole different process to grow and preserve garlic, and a lot of it has to do with chemicals we should not be ingesting,” he says.

Without any additives, Ed says his garlic will store through May or June.

He enjoys teaching people about garlic — growing, harvesting and storing methods. During the winter months, he offers a three-hour consultation for those interested in growing and marketing larger quantities of garlic.

Ed is intentionally following his passion. “When you do that, you live a good life,” he says.

Reach Ed Fraser at [email protected] or 585-350-8295. Reach Rob Orchard at [email protected].

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