This post hits close to home because garlic and shallots were the very first crop I ever planted as a new farmer. I had read The Market Gardener that recommended garlic and shallots as high-profit crops, but I found them to be the opposite. Now is the time of year when many parts of the country are preparing to head into Fall, and planting garlic and shallots might be in your farm plan. In some cases, growing garlic and shallots may be appropriate, but we will look at what those situations are.
This post will contain some math in it to get down in the details to really show why I do not believe garlic and shallots are profitable crops for small farmers. I got caught up in this as well of just believing rather than working through computations myself.
If you have a CSA, garlic and shallots are a welcome find for your customers, so in this case you may consider it. However, I would recommend trying to just source the items from another farmer rather than raising them yourself. If you are on more than half an acre, they may be appropriate to grow. On anything less than that amount, you are goign to be dedicating too much space to it. The calculations below will show this very clearly.
Intensive planting of garlic for a 25 foot bed has 3 rows spaced every 6″, which means you get 25*2*3=150 heads of garlic per bed. There are about 8 heads of garlic per pound. This means you are getting 150/8 ≈ 19 pounds per bed. At $8 per pound, that yields a minuscule $152 per bed. Even worse, the garlic needs to stay in the ground for 6-9 months depending on the variety. At best, that means you are making 152/(6*30) = $.84 per day off of this bed. That is terrible.
Think about restaurants and how much garlic they go through. You’d be looking at maybe 5 pounds a week for a small or mid-sized restaurant. If you want to be a consistent supplier for 6 months out of the year, that is (6 months)*(4 weeks)*(5 pounds) = 120 pounds of garlic. And that is just one restaurant. That means you would need over 6 beds dedicated for just one restaurant for 6 months!
Let’s contrast this with a higher turnover crop. Let’s pick radishes. A 25 foot bed of radishes yields about 80 bunches that sell for $2.50 each. That bed will gross $200. Selecting a variety that grows in 3 weeks, this bed is making you about $9.50 per day. That’s over 11 times the garlic.
Let’s take an even longer season crop: carrots. A 25 foot bed of carrots yields about $300 off of 70 pounds of baby carrots. Carrots take longer to grow, but even at 70 days in the ground, that is still earning you about $4.30 per day.
You might be thinking these still could be a good crop for you if you are in a cold part of the country where you would not be able to plant anything through the winter anyway. True, but the garlic will still be in the ground until May, June, or July. That is minimum several months of solid planting time.
I wish I had done this simple calculation prior to growing shallots and garlic. But I don’t want to end here. Now let me tell you my story, keeping in mind that I didn’t even have this tragic numbers in mind just yet.
My sad story began with an attempt at growing some more exquisite varieties of both garlic and shallots. I spent a pretty penny getting the starter seed for it. You can spend anywhere from $10-$25 per pound for some of the more rare stuff. You only need one clove to grow one plant, but that still requires a lot of heads. I thought I would make myself special by growing something special.
I planted 4 100 foot beds in January. Here in San Diego, it does not get cold until January/February so I waited. We got the rains and things began to grow. I thought things were good. Then the weeds set in. Garlic and shallots do not do well with weed pressure. I spent quite a bit of time weeding beds. Since I was using drip irrigation, I had to hand weed because the stirrup hoe would not work. The weed pressure ultimately was too much for me and I had to abandon working the beds because I had other things to tend to.
I managed to sell a few bunches off as baby garlic but in the end harvested tiny cloves of everything. It was not something I could actually sell. I did have a decent sized harvest of shallots, but I did not have a good place to dry them and with the heat of this area, they quickly rotted. I ended up throwing away about 200 pounds of very rare shallots. If it had not rotted, selling it off as seed garlic would have been my best bet.
I can’t bring myself to total up how many hours I spent tending to those beds, harvesting, plus the initial money to buy the seed. But needless to say, I wasted a lot of time and money on those beds, and it yielded next to nothing worthwhile. I will grow garlic next year, but it will be maybe 50 heads for myself. For what it’s worth, the garlic I grew was incredibly tasty.
The lesson here is to really crunch the numbers before you grow anything. Don’t assume something is high profit until you do. At some point, I will publish a table with these calculations so you can see exactly how much a bed of any item is actually earning you each day.
Garlic and Shallot Dos:
- Grow only if farm is greater than a half acre
- Try to source from other farmers if you must have it
- Have strong weed prevention strategy in place
- Have drying and storage ready
Until next time,
The Failing Farmer