October 17, 2021

A Matter of Life & Breath

Two farmers, AC/DC, and a singleminded love for a single stinky vegatable
By Brighid Driscoll | Sept. 18, 2021

When it comes to cooking, you'll be hard-pressed to find anyone opposed to throwing in a few extra cloves of garlic. Humans have used and loved the aromatic herb for thousands of years, with early uses being culinary, medicinal, and even spiritual. Though we no longer use it to ward off ominous creatures or open the third eye, garlic remains a kitchen staple that finds its way into dinner more nights than not.

And while dozens of farms in northern Michigan grow row after row of the pungent vegetable — and yes, it is officially a vegetable — Great Lakes Garlic Farm has dedicated every one of its acres to the stuff.

But theirs isn't any regular stuff. 

The average supermarket garlic, i.e. softneck garlic, is a pale, smooth, and small bulb, says Kevin Gregory, farmer and co-owner of Great Lakes Garlic Farm. Softneck garlic grows fast, has a mild taste, and papery skin. It grows well in warmer climates and keeps better than its hardneck counterpart, making it ideal for long-distance travel from California or — more likely, China, where most of the world's garlic is grown and exported. Softneck garlic works for its intended purpose, of course, but what it achieves in portability, it lacks in flavor.

Hardneck garlic, on the other hand, which can withstand hardy winters with subzero temperatures, boasts deeper, far more complex — and sometimes even downright spicy — flavor.

"These," Kevin says, motioning to a large crate of hardneck garlic just harvested from their Buckley farm, will be a little hotter."

"It's super fresh," he adds. "In a supermarket, it might be a month, two months, three months since it's been harvested. Who knows how long it's been." 

Tiffany Gregory, who co-owns the farm with spouse Kevin, points to each of the three varieties they grow. "We have Music, we have Northern Jewel, and we have Chesnok Red. Each of those has its own flavor profile," she says. "Music has a nice flavor. It's not as hot when raw as the other two are, but it still has a strong flavor that holds up in cooking. Northern Jewel is a Michigan heirloom variety with a nice, hot, strong flavor when it's raw, but it mellows out when you're cooking. It's great for roasting, fermenting, and sauteeing. Chesnok is also pretty strong when it's raw. It holds its flavor well, and I like to use it for soups and sauces."

Hardneck garlic is the only crop grown on Kevin and Tiffany's Buckley farm. Kevin works as a full-time engineer, but farming is in his blood. He grew up on an asparagus farm near Big Rapids and, as an adult, longed to return to those roots.

In 2016 he leased a lot of land from his parent's farm to try his hand at growing garlic.

"It went terribly," Kevin says with a laugh. But instead of growing discouraged, he and Tiffany decided to try again — but this time on a larger scale. When the farmhouse and acreage that is now theirs came up for sale in 2017, they bought it and brought their two little boys — and about 1,000 pounds of garlic — to the new property.

They chose garlic because of its versatility. "It's versatile; it's easy to love," Tiffany said. "It's something we can lightly process right here." The family has a processing kitchen next to their house where Tiffany turns some of their fresh garlic into packaged product. She's in charge of their farmers market circuit, and several days a week, she sells their garlic seasonings, freshly minced garlic, garlic dijon mustard, and bulbs at a local market. They sell the bulk of their products to farmers' markets and through an online shop.

While Tiffany interacts with customers directly, Kevin is responsible for crunching numbers and planting. Not all of their garlic is for sale each season. They reserve some to plant for the following year. For garlic cloves to successfully grow into new bulbs, they need to be root side down, or at least on their side. This specific planting position works best for a small-scale farm because it requires a farmer willing to plant each clove by hand.

Kevin pulls up a video clip of himself on a tractor. In it, he tows two employees who are seated with a narrow table in front of them. As AC/DC's "Back In Black" plays, the tractor starts to move, and each worker carefully places a clove of garlic into a hole into the ground. This method saves time, prevents a sore back, and ensures that the garlic will fall on its side. The music is an essential part of the method; timing the drop of each clove to the beat of the song ensures the cloves are evenly spaced.

"We tried it out at first with a metronome timer to see how fast I could drive the tractor and how consistently they could drop it in. They could keep up at 96 beats per minute, and Back In Black is 96 beats per minute," Kevin says, then grins. "The other option was Miley Cyrus' "Party In the USA," which we weren't as excited about."

Fun experimentation and clever engineering are hallmarks of the Gregorys' approach to modern farm management. And the results are proving successful. Whereas planting an acre by hand would take a week or more for an experienced farmer, harnessing the power of innovation (and, of course, rock 'n' roll) Kevin had three acres of garlic planted in a week.

Along with their new-school planting techniques, the Gregorys strictly follow organic farming processes. They're on the path to becoming certified, which they believe will be beneficial for attracting even more customers. Even so, they've gained loyal customers through attending markets.

As the farmers market season winds down, the Gregory's will begin the garlic growing process again in jusr a few weeks. Two weeks of October are dedicated to planting, and by spring, shoots begin to emerge from the ground. They harvest in July, which, unfortunately, isn't as automated of a process as planting. Kevin and his crew go old school and rely on manpower, not marchine, to dig out each tender bulb.

In the last year, Great Lakes Garlic Farm produced 10,000 pounds of garlic. Their goal: to increase the garlic plantings by 50 percent each year, getting to 10 acres as quickly as possible. Nevertheless, they plan to keep the selling simple; they'll continue to stick with three varieties and remain regulars at local farmers markets.

Ask them about their garlic, and they can tell you anything. Ask them their favorite way to prepare it, and they're thoughtful. "We really like this sauce called Toum. You put plain oil, like canola oil, in the blender and drizzle in the garlic. It's a Lebanese garlic sauce, and it's incredible."

Though having the option to include ultra-fresh hardneck garlic at every meal is a big perk of the work, the Gregorys insist that what they love most is making it possible for northern Michiganders to experience the taste of local, organic garlic at an accessible price. Bring on the shawarma.

Garlic is at its peak right now. If you'd like to taste some grown by Great Lakes Garlic Farm, you can find it for a few weeks more at the Sara Hardy Farmers Market and online at greatlakesgarlicfarm.com.

Fun fact: A softneck garlic has a long stalk with soft leaves; a hardneck has a firm, edible stalk known as a scape. 


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