Garlic Power

In July, organic farmers Beckie and Jack Gurley of Sparks harvest the pungent bulb for a growing number of devotees.

July 14, 1999|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,Sun Food Editor

Beckie and Jack Gurley of Sparks can barely take a breath these days and not because they're harvesting thousands of bulbs of pungent garlic.

They still have to clean, brush, dry, sort and sell the rampaging crop that begs to be pulled from the ground in the beginning weeks of July. Their days start at 5:30 a.m. and barely end at nightfall.

In between, Jack goes to work as an assessor for an environmental consulting firm. Beckie tends to Emma, 3, and Taylor, 1, and the 4-acre organic farm in northern Baltimore County, where the couple, who are in their 30s, also grows specialty produce such as fava beans, striped radishes, blue potatoes and mizuma, a spicy green.

On Thursdays, Beckie Gurley loads bulky bags of garlic and crates of other vegetables into a green Ford pickup and heads to the Hunt Valley Farmers' Market. On Saturdays, she repeats the process for a trip to the Bel Air Farmers' Market.

"It's tiring but I like it," says Gurley, a chemist who left her career to take care of her daughters and expanding farm enterprise. "It's just great fun."

The Gurleys' celebration of garlic begins in the fall when they invite friends to help plant about 10,000 tiny garlic cloves in a hand-tilled field across from their white Colonial house. The atmosphere is partylike, Gurley says.

But it's not quite Gilroy, Calif., self-proclaimed garlic capital of the world, where more than 100,000 visitors are expected at next week's 21st annual Garlic Festival. The three-day event, which starts July 23, features all things garlic, including a man dressed as a garlic bulb, a Garlic Queen, the Great Garlic Cook-off and T-shirts proclaiming slogans like "Eat, Drink and Stink."

While Sparks may never become Gilroy, the Gurleys hope their fresh-from-the-farm garlic will find a niche here.

"Everybody loves garlic," Beckie Gurley says. "It goes with everything."

The state Department of Agriculture says it doesn't track garlic production, but Bob Pooler, of the department's Maryland Organic Certification Process, believes the Gurleys may be one of the largest organic garlic growers in Maryland. For the past two years, the couple also has produced champion garlic at the state fair.

"They're very conscientious growers," Pooler says. "They take pride in growing garlic, and other crops."

The Gurleys -- who named their property Calvert's Gift Farm to honor the family's roots in Calvert County -- also sell produce as part of a Community Supported Agriculture project. In a CSA, members buy shares in the farm and receive a weekly allotment of just-harvested organic food. Beckie Gurley -- a tireless worker even in 100-degree heat -- spends Tuesdays packing up boxes to be picked up by the 22 members.

At the farmers' markets, Gurley is a persuasive hawker for her wares, including the five varieties of garlic she sells and the intricate garlic braids she weaves. "Try the German white. It's the mildest I have. These got pulled out of the ground this morning," she touts to a Hunt Valley shopper contemplating the mound of garlic "fists" on several folding tables.

Maureen Nicholas of Cockeysville is a regular visitor to Gurley's spot at the small-scale farmers' market on the mall's parking lot.

"It's excellent," says Nicholas, selecting several plump bulbs. "We use garlic a lot. It's good for you too. It's supposed to lower blood pressure."

In recent studies, garlic also has been linked to helping stave off colds and lowering cholesterol, which explains the growing interest in this member of the lily family, garlic promoters say.

"People learned garlic was good for you," says Tom Reed of Gilroy, who fancies himself a "garlic guru." "If people eat more garlic, they will live longer and they will be healthier while living longer. Garlic is incredible."

This is a man who heeds his own advice. Reed, who co-owns a company that makes garlic products such as dehydrated seasonings, starts his day with two chopped garlic cloves in a shot glass topped off with grapefruit juice.

"Then I can eat garlic the rest of the day for the pleasure of it," he explains happily.

Reed is not alone in downing garlic for health benefits. Centuries ago, Egyptian slaves were given garlic to increase their physical stamina while building the pyramids. Even Eleanor Roosevelt supposedly ate three chocolate-covered garlic cloves a day to keep her mind sharp.

Over the years, garlic was thought to cure toothaches, consumption, wounds and evil demons, according to "Food Lover's Companion" (Barron's, 1990) by Sharon Tyler Herbst. Today, people even pop garlic pills for the purported effects -- although most people prefer to enjoy the elixir as food.

As consumption of garlic in the United States has grown steadily in the past six years -- from 1/2 pound a person per year to 2 pounds a person per year -- Douglas Urig of Milan, Ohio, decided it was time for a garlic publication. Hence, Mostly Garlic sprouted into existence last summer.

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