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Gilroy's Garlic Starts Here

June 19, 1986|BARBARA DURBIN | Durbin is food writer based in Portland, Ore. and

MADRAS, Ore. — Strong afternoon winds whip across the plains here in central Oregon, fanning the heavenly smell of garlic through the air. Standing in the middle of a dusty, barren field, one looks around to see what's cooking, and where the chow line forms. But the aroma is from the many one-ton bins brimming with heads of garlic, ready to be shipped in 50,000-pound lots to Gilroy, Calif., "garlic capital of the world."

Nearby, the sweet smell of peppermint perfumes the breezes from fields of the lavender-flowered herb, soon to be distilled into peppermint oil. It will be used to flavor mouthwash, toothpaste, breath mints and chewing gum.

Here on Gary and Camille Harris' farm that symbiotic relationship--garlic for seasoning foods and mint for the morning-after gargle--takes root.

But wait a minute. Garlic to Gilroy? Isn't that like sending coals to Newcastle? Well, not exactly.

Here, the hot dry weather (10 inches of rain a year) and cool nights provide the ideal climate for growing garlic seed. Also, the area is "disease-free," whereas Gilroy has a problem with white rot in seed. Seed produced here will grow more garlic in Gilroy than if the seed were raised in California, Gary Harris said. Seed is simply individual cloves from garlic heads that have been broken up.

Since the mid-'70s the Harrises have shipped 700,000 to 800,000 pounds of the bulb to California garlic growers each fall, on contract with Gilroy Foods. Some from their 68-acre crop is dehydrated to be sold as dry garlic seasoning.

Only nine growers out of 350 in the area have contracts with five Gilroy companies. Gary Harris says he's lucky to be among them, since raising garlic has proved to be more profitable than raising wheat, for which there's a surplus.

Likewise, mint means a better chance at being in the financial green versus the red. The couple raise about 80 acres of this member of the lily family, as do 135 other area growers. Collectively, they produce about 30% of the world's peppermint supply.

When cut and dried, the herb is distilled to produce mint oil, purchased by local mint oil buyers. Their biggest clients are companies that produce gum, toothpaste, mouthwash, breath mints and candies.

Camille Harris helps with both garlic and mint crops. At the garlic bins, she gleans the surface, picking out rocks, pulling off garlic tops, tidying them for shipment. In Gilroy, the receiving stations distinguish the Harris' garlic bins "as the ones with the fancy tags," since Camille Harris fills out all the shipment tags.

"It gives me something to do at nights," she joked, rolling her eyes, clearly not needing work to keep her busy.

She also "beats" the mint fields, harrowing the charred rows after field burning, which is necessary for disease control.

She's past state chairwoman for the Oregon Farm Bureau Women and fourth vice president for the Oregon Farm Bureau, an organization of 10,500 farm families. The women take on projects such as teaching students about farming and educating farm families about farm safety.

The group runs booths at the state and local fairs that promote various Oregon commodities, and pass out informational tidbits, such as the fact that for every dollar consumers spend on food, the farmer receives 27 cents. Mrs. Harris also helps lobby for legislation that would improve that picture.

Additionally, she's a one-woman campaign promoting companies that use Northwest mint. (The balance of the crop is grown in the Midwest.)

For example, she persuaded her dentist to switch toothpaste brands. "I told him we support him; he should support us," she said.

Camille and Gary Harris met at Oregon State University in Corvallis, where both were graduated--he in agriculture economics, she in home economics education. Although she began in textiles and clothing, her plans changed when "I met this farmer." She switched to a field she thought would be more marketable in eastern Oregon. After teaching high school home economics for five years in Madras, she retired to raise children.

Midsummer through fall is the busy time of year, with garlic planting on the heels of its harvest, and the mint planting continuing to whenever the ground freezes in October. They also grow carrot seed for commercial use and for home gardeners; that must be planted in the middle of the garlic harvest. Their land also produces grass seed and soft white winter wheat, also used for seed.

Not surprisingly, Camille Harris is a big garlic user, going through an estimated 15 heads plus a large container of dehydrated garlic in a year.

She offers a few tips for other garlic fans: Blanch the cloves for easier peeling. And to bring out more of the flavor, crush rather than mince the cloves. More oil will be released. Or to soften its pungency, boil it for a few minutes, rather than using it raw. Or chase with a lot of mint-flavored toothpaste and mouthwash.

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