Tamed River Makes Way
for Unconventional Crop
Photo: Salt River Garlic Company
By Sarah Fritschner
The Salt River winds its way 150 miles from Boyle County in the east to West Point in Hardin County, where it empties into the Ohio River. Perhaps its most famous feature is Taylorsville Lake, created by a dam that was built in 1974 to prevent flooding along its banks.
The annual flooding had been an inevitable occurrence on the river and it left many wide plains of bottomland that historically have supported crops including tobacco, corn and soybeans, not to mention the occasional vegetable patch.
Not even Tom Scanlan knew — 16 years ago when he turned down that narrow Spencer County road and followed it — that the land he was about to purchase would one day yield a crop unusual for many Kentucky farms. Now he is co-proprietor of Salt River Garlic Company (SaltRiverGarlic.com), a company that sells garlic through internet commerce and at some Central Kentucky garden stores and nurseries.
Originally from Chicago, Scanlan’s Army career ended abruptly with a missile explosion that burned him over 70% of his body. But during that career he had moved often.
“Every time I moved I got a little more out in the country,” he says. These days, he’s in the last house on a long road turns to gravel well before you reach the farm.
Scanlan didn’t start growing garlic until he met Debra Green nearly four years ago. A consultant, “recovering lawyer” and urban dweller, Green thought the land could be put to use.
Photo: E.S. Bruhmann
“I thought, ‘What can we do that’s not going to take all of our time [but would] be fun and make a little money?’” Green says. Garlic is a crop whose yield per acre can rival tobacco income, says Scanlan.
“I’m the scut work,” says Scanlan.
“There’s the brains,” he adds, pointing to Green.
The 20 or so hardneck varieties are grown without petrochemical pesticides or chemically based nitrogen fertilizers and the bulbs they produce qualify for the “certified naturally grown” (NaturallyGrown.org/programs) label.
The crop is moved every year, returning to its original spot in the fifth year. These rotations help reduce pests and disease. Green and Scanlan, who hire local teenagers for tilling and harvesting, use cover crops to add fertility to the soil and deter pests; they add amendments like green sand and horse manure to keep the soil healthy and loose, so the garlic bulbs can grow large.
The couple is trying to manage the farm sustainably, adding fertility naturally and keeping weeds down without herbicides. A few months ago, Green and Scanlan purchased a small gaggle of Toulouse geese.
“They’re weed eaters,” says Scanlan. Unfortunately, the geese are also fond of heirloom tomatoes. A small flock of ducks works on the insect population. Both groups have imprinted on Scanlan and follow him wherever he walks.
Down the driveway and through a field are a small flock of Shetland sheep ewes, which trim the grass, add fertility and, next spring will produce lambs.
The heirloom hardneck varieties of garlic are considered “more refined” by aficionados, according to Green, than softneck varieties common in the supermarket. For cooks, hardneck garlic is much easier to handle. The cloves form around a stem, they are easy to separate, often larger than cloves on a softneck bulb and easy to peel. Hardneck varieties also grow well in cold weather. Their defining feature is a stem, which shoots up during spring and will bloom, if allowed, though many hardneck growers trim the stem, called a “scape,” to force more energy into the bulb. Softneck varieties have no stem and are propagated by dividing the bulb, like gladioli.
The harvest begins in May, says Green, unless the spring is wet and cool, as in 2013. The soil is loosened with a fork, then the harvester grabs the green leaves and tugs the bulb and roots out of the soil.
The long leaves are used to braid or tie the garlic in bundles and the bundles are hung to cure, when their flavor concentrates and the outside skin layers dry and tighten. Roots, too, stay on until the cure is over. The garlic can be used at any time for cooking, but curing lengthens its life into winter months.
“It’s a terrific hobby,” Green says about the learning curve. “Gardening is better than therapy.” Besides, she says, like the geese and the sheep, the varieties of garlic she grows are not widely known and are definitely underutilized.
“Unless we do more to grow them and sell them and enjoy them, we’re going to lose them.”
Sarah Fritschner is editor of Edible Louisville and coordinator of Louisville Farm to Table.
Roasted Heirloom Garlic
French Onion Heirloom Garlic Soup
Southern Summer Vegetable Dinner
with Fresh Heirloom Garlic
Photos: Salt River Garlic Company