This project is designed to test the feasibility of growing gourmet garlic in the Big Horn Basin of Wyoming and to sell the garlic using the Internet as the marketing tool.
The SARE-funded project and its producer participants have been able to successfully grow gourmet garlic in the Big Horn Basin of north central Wyoming. At the same time they have learned that introducing such a crop takes time (three to five years).
And while they have found the Internet to be a valuable venue for marketing their product, the growth of their garlic growers association and the resulting production surge suggest they will have to develop other marketing strategies to accommodate the increased production.
The project team has learned that it can grow garlic in the Big Horn Basin.
“Our award-winning hardneck gourmet garlic (for the past two years we have received the blue ribbon at the Park County Fair) grows well in our irrigated sandy loam at the 4,000-plus foot level and is on its way to becoming a viable alternative crop here in the Big Horn Basin of Wyoming,” writes project coordinator Steve Shesler in the project’s final report.
At the project’s start, Shesler found two local farmers interested in forming a gourmet garlic growers association. They saved money by purchasing and retrofitting equipment for planting, mulching, foliar feeding, harvesting and curing the crop and by collectively buying and shipping in seed stock, Norwegian seaweed (kelp) and fish emulsion. The planter, for example, was for potatoes and the mulching machine was a flail chopper designed for forage alfalfa.
The farmers first initiated a soil-building program to raise the organic matter in the high desert soil. The garlic is planted in October, with harvest planned for the following August, so they cover the crop with mulch for protection during winter. The mulch, from a local alfalfa seed farm, is put up in round bales that are then rolled out over the fall-planted garlic to be flail chopped, which provides a blanket of winter insulation. The mulch is removed in March so the ground can warm, which triggers the garlic to emerge. Chopped mulch is then spread over the newly emerged garlic leaves, which helps to suppress broadleaf weeds and retain moisture during the hot months of June and July. The mulch has been especially valuable during the drought. After harvest in early August, the mulch is tilled under to build organic matter.
“We estimate that by incorporating the mulch in the soil, we should reach the optimum level for growing garlic in five years,” says Shesler.
In addition to the alfalfa mulch, the group will grow green manure crops like buckwheat and experiment with adding composted dry bean waste and horse manure, which adds both nitrogen and organic matter. For the past two seasons, the farmers have used no synthetic fertilizers or chemical herbicides or pesticides, and they have foliar fed the garlic with Maxicrop Norwegian seaweed and fish emulsion, which not only stimulate plant growth, but also promote the beneficial microorganisms needed for healthy, productive and sustainable soils.
The major markets, located in metropolitan areas south and west, are expensive to reach from the Basin because it’s an hour and a half away from any Interstate highway. Through Internet presence, the growers have connected with wholesale buyers who will buy all the hardneck gourmet garlic they can produce. Still, experience has told them they can net more through direct sales to retail grocery outlets, restaurants, farmers markets and roadside produce stands. But they consider presence on the Internet a critical marketing link.
“During the process of building our Web site, we learned from an experienced Web marketer that having a Web-site presence is now becoming mandatory rather than an option,” says Shesler. “Your business credibility is now judged by your having a Web site the provides instant access to sales, product use information and e-mail communication.”
Garlic association members plan to use the Web site to sell not only seed stock and small amounts of consumable garlic, but also garlic powder, special garlic spice mixtures, gift baskets and more.
“To date, the response from our Web site has been very favorable and much better than we expected for our first year,” says Shesler.
The value of this project is that it offers a template for others considering producing and marketing alternative crops. While limited markets may not be able to handle broad production of these crops, niche markets can be developed and maintained with a steady supply of a quality product marketed using a variety of innovative techniques.
FARMER ADOPTION AND DIRECT IMPACT
Two growers joined the project and helped develop the garlic association at the beginning of the project, and two more have joined the project. Others are waiting to see how the market develops before joining.
“The Wyoming Gourmet Garlic Growers Association is becoming better known and will undoubtedly flourish as our successes here in the Big Horn Basin grow,” says project coordinator Steve Shesler. “We will continue to provide information and guided tours of our garlic-growing operations to interested farmers and local consumers.”
FUTURE RECOMMENDATIONS OR NEW HYPOTHESES
The SARE funded group suggests that producers involved in similar marketing experiments should take a close look at the Internet.
“We recommend to anyone responsible for their own sales program to seriously look at developing a Web site for the economy of sales, the dissemination of production information and e-mail communication,” says the project’s final report.
DISSEMINATION OF FINDINGS
Project coordinator Shesler says the hard work and innovation involved in developing this alternative crop have earned the participants considerable attention in the Big Horn Basin, both from interested farmers and county agricultural extension agents.
“The county extension agents have been interested in our progress because they get farmers asking for alternative crops that they can grow at 4,000 feet with an average 137 frost-free days,” says Shesler. “We have explained to all who have expressed an interest in growing gourmet garlic that we are not going to replace the income they now receive from growing dry beans, sugar beets, malt barley or alfalfa seed, but we can provide an alternative source of income.”
In addition to project coordinator Shesler, four farmers have joined the Wyoming Gourmet Garlic Growers Association. Others, encouraged by the potential, are considering joining.