Growing Garlic on Kauai
Our tires crunch on gravel as we pull into Steelgrass Farm. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, the lot is full, but there are no chocolate tours today, so parking is easy. Dan and I are here to meet Cody Meyer, who figured out how to grow organic hard-neck garlic in a subtropical environment. Cody was a professional chef for 10 years before he retired and learned how to farm under Phil Sheldon of Sheldonia Farms in Poipu. At Steelgrass, he’s the cacao orchard manager and sells vegetables under the name Sleeping Giant Greens.
The three of us walk up a steep incline and stop near a vanilla orchid. Across the 30-acre property, flowers on 250 vines are in full bloom. They’ll die by the time the sun sets, so owner Tony Lydgate hand pollinates each one.
“The vines flower in April and May,” explains Tony of the self-compatible plants. He opens a small flower’s delicate center, and gently presses the underside of the stamen into a cluster of pollen. “The insect that naturally pollinates the plants doesn’t live in Hawaii so we have to do it.”
We leave Tony to pollinate 150 vanilla blossoms and hop in the back of Cody’s pickup. He drives Dan and I over hilly dirty roads until we reach the top of a grassy bluff. Rows of chocolate trees line the hillside and surround the gardens. Mountains in the distance have waterfalls streaming down their faces and birds chirp in the late morning sun. In the beds, neat rows of deep purple lettuce strike a stunning contrast against other, bright green heads.
“Biodiversity is the name of the game,” says Cody, whose produce is delivered within a 3-mile radius, including Hanai, Hoku Natural Foods Market, Java Kai, Lava Lava Beach Club and Jo2. “I’m growing micro arugula, micro mizuna, lots of fancy lettuce, shiso — Jo2 makes vinegar with it — micro shiso, colored carrots, watermelon radish, avocado, coffee, nasturtium, ice cream bean, sugar apple, squash and now, garlic.”
Before moving to Kauai, Cody was a private chef at the National Science Foundation in Antartica; fishing lodges, bear hunting camps and Toolik Field Station in Alaska; and surfing resorts in Panama and Costa Rica. When he came here, he cooked at Living Foods Market & Cafe in Poipu.
“As a chef, I like garlic, but I couldn’t find any here,” Cody explains. “I kept hearing that you couldn’t grow garlic but I though that’s impossible, because it seems like everything grows here.”
He learned that no one on Kauai grows garlic on a commercial level. There are several reasons for this, including the fact that garlic likes to stay dry. Additionally, most varieties need a cold snap to thrive and a 14 hour photoperiod, or 14 hours of light each day. Cody says that on Kauai, during peek summer, we get 13 hours. Last Spring, he began experimenting and the results inspired him to plant 3600 seeds. This test crop has taught Cody how to negotiate garlic’s special needs as it grows in an unfamiliar climate.
“Garlic will only grow successfully during one short season,” says Cody as he pulls a bulb from the dry dirt and shakes hard clods from the roots. The bulbs are small, with two or three fat cloves tucked inside thin layers of tight skin. He breaks one open, peels back the outer layers and offers me a clove. I’m kind of scared. Through my work, I’ve been to more than 90 farms and have eaten a lot of produce straight from the ground, but never raw garlic. I look at the creamy clove and wonder how hard it’s bite will be. Cody pops an entire clove in his mouth. I’m not ready for the whole thing, so I slowly put the tip of the clove in my mouth and bite down. The flesh is crisp and wet and fills my mouth with pungent garlic flavor. My eyes water a little as Cody smiles wide.
Right now, there are two places that you can try Cody’s garlic. He sold scapes, which have higher garlic oil content than the clove, to Hanai and Jo2. All of the cloves are sold to Jo2.
“I’m going to harvest anywhere from 50 to 100 pounds of garlic this month,” says Cody. “It’s a lot of garlic to come out of the ground at once, but chefs can cure it and preserve it until the next harvest season, thus rationing it so Kauai grown garlic can say on the menu all year long. We will break even with the sale of garlic this harvest, but the point is to deliver more of what’s needed to Kauai’s chefs without having to rely on imports.”