Growing organic garlic on a fifth-generation family farm was just what the doctor ordered. Well actually, Jeff “Doc” Menn didn’t order his son and daughter-in-law to grow the crop; he encouraged the couple to consider taking on the garlic-raising project, and the couple accepted the challenge.
“Once we settled on the ranch, Jeff brought up the idea that we might take on the garlic as our own business on the ranch,” Jacob said. “We started taking over the crop for the second planting in the fall of 2015.”
When Doc realized the few garlic growers in Wisconsin weren’t raising the garlic organically, he started growing organic garlic at Devil’s Hole Ranch sometime around 2013 or 2014.
The ranch, located south of Norwalk, has a number of certified organic acres, and Jeff reached out to Patrick Slattery of Middle Ridge for advice. Slattery grows a number of organic crops and provided the initial seed stock.
Growing organic garlic is getting more attention because of its health benefits. Studies have shown a daily garlic supplement reduces the number of colds and shortens the number of sick days for flu and colds. It has also been found to lower high blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Its nutritional and health-promoting qualities come from vitamins C and B6, manganese, selenium and various trace nutrients it contains.
Jacob grew up on the ranch and after graduating from Viroqua High School, he enlisted in the Army, where he met his wife, Clarissa, while stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. Clarissa was born and raised in Lubao, Philippines, where she earned a degree in nursing. The couple has two young sons, Jeffrey and Albert.
Jacob and Clarissa learned cultivating garlic required weeding, mulching and removing the flowering stems known as scapes, the stem-like growths whose arched tops have a pointed bud holding the plant’s flower. The scapes are removed so the plants will send more nutrients to the bulbs.
After the initial year raising the crop, Jacob and Clarissa took on partners to help grow the business.
“After our first year, my cousin, Eleanor, and her husband, Martin Erwin, joined us as business partners, and the business became an LLC, settling on the name Menn’s Organic Garlic as the business name,” Jacob said.
With four crop years under their belt, the Menns have learned some of the best practices for raising garlic on two or three acres.
“Each year we have gotten better at working out spacing more efficiently and effectively, so we’re planting more but using about the same amount of land,” Jacob said. “As we are an organic operation we have to make sure our soil is healthy and add appropriate organic inputs as fertilizer. We rotate our field each year to make sure we don’t deplete it.”
In addition to efforts to prevent soil depletion through a rotation of hay or corn the growers continually try to overcome challenges posed by the heavy clay soil. This year, they have begun soil testing to get a better idea of what the soil needs.
The crop involves considerable amount of manual labor. Straw mulch is applied, but as spring and summer wear on, a mower and weed trimmer keep grasses and other weeds under control between the planted rows.
“Some of the things we’ve learned are to dig a trench the width of our under-cutter at the front of the row so the under-cutter starts at the right depth, and then add extra weight on top to help keep it at the correct depth,” Jacob said. “When we are planting, again if it is too wet, the clay soil can be hard to work with getting it broken up fine enough that the furrows can be made cleanly.”
The growers are also researching pest control and garlic varieties for best results.
“We test a sample of plants each year to make sure there aren’t any known pests, namely bloat nematodes that would require us to replace our entire crop,” Jacob said. “Happily that’s never been an issue for us. The only major pest we’ve had was a couple years ago, we planted a dozen or so cloves of elephant garlic, which is technically a leek. Little did we know that deer love elephant garlic; only one plant escaped.”
If they decide to try elephant garlic in the future, Jacob admits they will have to put up fencing or some other deterrent.
The Menns have next year’s crop planted, putting the garlic cloves in the ground the middle of October.
“Mother Nature and the weather control what days we plant or harvest,” Jacob said. “For example, this fall with all the rain, we were waiting and watching for the right stretch of days to plant.”
Their first customers were friends and family members who helped promote the garlic products.
“Word of mouth was and is still our best form of advertising,” Jacob said. “Eleanor and Martin actually are great evangelists for our garlic. They live out in the Williamsburg area of Virginia and sell a portion of our crop out east.”
Along with selling their raw garlic bulbs, the Menns also offer dehydrated garlic powder and granulated garlic as well as pickled scapes.
The products are sold at weekly farmers’ markets in the area, and in the last year, they’ve started supplying food co-ops in La Crosse and Viroqua with bulk garlic powder and granules.
“They have been great partners (the co-ops) to work with and the response from customers has been really positive,” Jacob said.
The Menns also attend the Midwest Garlic Festival in Elizabeth, Illinois, south of Galena the second weekend of August.
“The festival is a chance for all of us to work together, along with Jacob’s mother Paula, who also often helps Clarissa at the La Crosse farmers’ market,” Jacob said.
The business partners are exploring using the composted leaves and stems as the basis for a crop of edible mushrooms.
“That would give us a second crop on the same field and be an effective way to maintain the soil,” Jacob said. “We may also branch out into some herbs and spices in the future, with the idea of doing spice blends with the garlic powder, but for now we are focused on growing the varieties of garlic that we think taste delicious.”
Jacob admits making those ideas a reality may be a couple of years away and will require some experimentation.