Ancient Alliums

Alliums — onions, garlic,  leeks, shallots and ramps — are ancient foods that were harvested from the wild by cultures all over the world even before the advent of agriculture.  They were probably among the first vegetables ever cultivated by farmers, and they remain stubbornly resistant to human efforts adapt them to modern agricultural practices.

We are doing our part here at Terra Firma to continue the tradition, and are now in the midst of our annual spring harvest of onions and garlic. The crops were planted late last fall and grew through the winter.  Some of each was harvested with the leaves on and sent to you as fresh vegetables.

We stopped irrigated both onions and garlic several weeks ago, which forces the sizing bulb to pull energy from the tops to finish maturing.  The leaves are now dead or dying, and the bulbs are ready to harvest.

At this point, we undercut the roots of both crops with a heavy blade on the tractor.  After that, however, they are handled differently.   Onions plants are laid out on burlap sacks on the ground in a shallow pile called a windrow and then covered with more burlap sacks, or under trees if there are some close by.   There in the shade,the bulbs cure in the heat.

Once the tops are completely dry, we trim them off  and transfer  them into large bins for storage.

Garlic plants have stiffer stems and leaves.  We harvest them directly into the storage bins, standing the plants up in a single layer more or less like how they were growing.  Then we stack the bins to shade the plants and leave them to dry for 3-4 weeks before we start trimming the tops and roots off and cleaning up the heads.

Rain at any stage in this process can ruin both crops, which is why the Central Valley with its seasonally hot, dry weather is such an ideal place to grow alliums.  Onions and garlic grown in temperate or rainy climates must be dried indoors, with the help of heaters and dehumidifiers.  Put another way, California onions and garlic have a lower carbon footprint then those grown in places like Washington (Walla Wallas), Georgia (Vidalias) or Maui (Maui Sweets).

Garlic is grown just once a year here, and we normally store it until Christmas or even late January.  The onions we are harvesting now, however, have a shorter shelf life and generally only last through August before softening and starting to sprout.  That’s why we plant a second crop in the spring and harvest it in late summer.




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