Today, garlic is a popular ingredient in cooking due to its strong smell and delicious taste. Throughout history, however, this herb's main use was for health and medicinal purposes.
For Mike Chamas and Jan Hoffman of J&M Farm Company, however, this crop is the backbone to their livelihood. Focusing predominantly on this small bulb for a living might seem odd, but for this Crawford couple it made sense considering the economics.
"Not a lot of people grow it and we knew seed garlic sells for a high price," said Hoffman.
Getting into Garlic
Ten years ago Chamas and Hoffman purchased their current 15 acres of land but didn't move onto it until six years ago. "This used to be a junkyard," said Chamas.
Once they fixed the irrigation and added the necessary structures and living amenities they started planting.
"We weren't sure what we were gonna plant down here but we knew we wanted to grow more," said Chamas. Coming from Eagle, both were excited for a longer growing season.
Eagle, they both agreed, was growing too quickly, too. Wanting some quiet, privacy and affordable land they began looking. "We spent a couple years before moving just driving around, looking," said Hoffman.
Crawford stuck out as having all three qualities and they started developing the farm. However, they soon realized the ground wasn't ideal. Both have worked tirelessly to improve the soil through cover crops and amendments.
Currently six acres are used in total for their farming.
And, they've managed to keep everything certified naturally grown. "We're often weeding till dark," said Hoffman referring to the demanding attention of garlic. "We sharpen our hoes every day."
Getting into Grains
The less than ideal soil is one of the reasons the couple started to grow pre-GMO heirloom grains. Another was water. "We wanted our water to go farther so we started dry landing some grains," said Hoffman.
Later, they started semi-irrigating as their systems improved. Five years ago Chamas started with about 20-50 seeds of his heirloom grains. Now pounds of jet barley, old rye, mustard, hulless oats and bolero wheat sit in white tubs.
"There's a movement to get those grains back to the forefront," said Hoffman. Both agree they need to narrow down their selections but are trying to figure out where the market will lead them.
Interest in the grains is evident. Last summer they held a clinic with Thistle Whistle Farm showing attendees how to grow, hand harvest and process grains.
Within 20 minutes Chamas took grain from the field and, after threshing and grinding, made the flour into a pancake.
Looking at Chamas and Hoffman now, one wouldn't know they weren't farmers before settling into Crawford. Chamas grew up in agriculture and managed an 11,000-acre ranch prior, but didn't do much laborious soil turning.
"We've found something we both enjoy," said Chamas. "Growing is rewarding."
Currently J&M Farm Co. sells at the markets in Crawford, Ridgway and Crested Butte. The two also plan to have a booth at Mountain Harvest Festival in Paonia.
In addition, Chamas and Hoffman grow a large garden. They sell shallots at market and occasionally, excess produce like eggplant.
Their garden contains a reasonable number of raspberry plants. Excess nursery crops get sold in the spring.
"We've become more than just a garlic operation," added Chamas with a chuckle.
The Labors of Farming
Chamas and Hoffman originally thought garlic could be a stand-alone crop supporting the farm. Due to its labor intensity, their profit mostly comes from the value-added garlic spice products.
The garlic process starts in the fall with planting. After the plants sprout in the spring, Hoffman and Chamas will weed, water and then harvest at the end of June. After 3-4 weeks of curing they'll sort, cut roots and hold back seed to plant for next year.
Large cloves go to market while small garlic cloves get used in their salts and grinders. Hoffman puts the small pieces in a solar dehydrator. By keeping the temperature under 115 degrees, it remains a raw food but will store for winter.
To complete the process they craft their signature blends. "At first we were just doing smoked garlic and regular garlic salt but then we got the idea to use grinder jars and other herbs," said Hoffman.
Then they work to sell at markets, which often takes a full day to prepare and work.
In between the garlic growing, Hoffman and Chamas plant cover crops, rotate the garlic fields, plant and harvest grains, plant and harvest their own garden, can their harvests, process various products at a commercial kitchen and build more on the land.
"We're not trying to get rich, but we want to create a sustainable lifestyle," said Chamas.
Overall, both feel the farm is doing well. Last summer Chamas was the only full-time person while Hoffman worked part-time. They both agreed the work was too much.
Ideally they'd like to hire someone to help part-time at the farm. "There are just not enough hours in the day to get to everything," said Hoffman.
The next step will be to create an internet presence through a website where they can potentially sell product online.
Chamas believes they're at the tipping point. The key, he said, will be to narrow down their crops and polish the process.
"Sometimes I have to really remind myself that I love garlic," he joked. "But I enjoy being part of the food movement."
Hoffman agreed, "The North Fork is a great place for growing."
To talk with Chamas and Hoffman about their endeavors or purchase a salt or grinder, stop by the J&M Farm Co. booth at the Mountain Harvest Festival. Additionally, Hoffman is available via email at email@example.com.