- Associated Press - Saturday, September 13, 2014

AFTON, Minn. (AP) - Mike Hicks does not have bad breath.

His farm doesn’t stink. His pickup truck has no smell at all.

It’s almost a letdown to meet a guy who runs a garlic farm and not get a slight whiff of the so-called “stinking rose.”

“Garlic should be hard as a rock and not have any smell at all,” Hicks said as he trimmed the dried leaves from bulbs at his Afton Garlic Farm, the only all-garlic farm in the metro area.

Such farms are fairly rare because the work of hand-planting and harvesting is intense, the St. Paul Pioneer Press (http://bit.ly/1COzmxm ) reported.

But among fans of locally grown and good-tasting food, Hicks’ garlic is popular. Hicks said he can hardly keep up with demand — and he loves his role as a local garlic guru.

“It’s been a lot more fun that I thought it was going to be,” he said.

Garlic is part of Hicks’ unlikely retirement plan.

Hicks, 66, was a 3M mechanical designer who retired in 2004. He had never worked a day on a farm and knew nothing about horticulture. “I was a city kid,” he said.

But one morning, he went with his wife to the St. Paul Farmers’ Market, where he noticed how plentiful the local tomatoes were — and how cheap.

Then he saw the garlic. “I said to my wife, ‘Look at the price of this!’” Hicks said.

It must be profitable to grow, he thought. “And I knew I would rather spend my time growing garlic than growing tomatoes,” he said.

So he learned about garlic cultivation and became one of a handful of garlic farmers in the state.

He soon realized everyone had a strong reaction to his new vocation.

“People seem to love garlic or hate it,” Hicks said.

He heard plenty of garlic-related jokes, including: “Did you hear about the garlic diet? I lost 20 friends.”

His garlic season begins in October, when he plants up to 10,000 cloves. These are protected by a foot of mulch.

There is no machine involved — Hicks does all the planting on his 1-acre plot by hand. “I have a pretty good back,” he said.

In the spring, the shoots emerge early. “Sometimes you see them coming up right through the snow,” he said.

He pulls up the plants in mid-July, and then hangs them to dry for several months. “The key to my garlic is that I dry it for a long time,” he said.

Most garlic is grown in warmer climates, but he raises varieties that depend on wintry weather to develop: Spanish Roja, German White, Armenian and Georgian Crystal.

These types are “stiff-necked” varieties, with a more rigid stem coming out of the bulb. They’re more perishable than the soft-necked garlic sold in stores and, Hicks says, taste better.

Like many growers of local food, he says, he must sell produce for more than grocery store prices. “Most of that garlic comes from Mexico or China,” he said.

To stay in business, he cuts costs where possible.

He uses no pesticides and fertilizes with a fish-emulsion extract, but he has not taken the steps to have his farm certified as organic. That’s too costly and bothersome, he said.

For the same reasons, he avoids farmers’ markets. To him, the fees and the working hours are not worth the effort.

Instead, he sells the garlic out of his Afton farmhouse.

Customers pull into his driveway, up to the double garage that has been converted into a garlic shop, with boxes of garlic lined up on sawhorses. They pick the kind of garlic they want, and Hicks weighs it and puts it into small paper sacks. All culinary garlic sells for $10 a pound.

“I am not trying to make a living here,” Hicks said as he cleaned up a dried garlic plant to get it ready to sell. “It’s really just a well-paying hobby.”

___

Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com

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