GALESVILLE, Wis. — High school agricultural instructor Jason Hovell grows garlic. He says it grounds him and complements his classroom instruction.

Working in the soil and overcoming marketing challenges bring realism to his teaching lessons, said Hovell, 36, owner of Tamarack Garlic Farm near Galesville. During the school year he instills knowledge and a love of agriculture in each new generation. Work days are a barrage of interruptions and questions from students.

Hours tending garlic are, in contrast, a quiet respite. He planted his first commercial crop of garlic in October 2014. With his wife, Molly Hovell, and sons Conner, 9, and Tucker, 5, he harvested in 2017 about an acre or about 35,000 plants. Their 2018 crop wasn’t as large.

“I wanted to try something different,” Jason Hovell said. “I’d experimented with hops and dabbled with grapes. Garlic piqued my interest. It’s a trending food. We stumbled onto it at the right time.”

He toured a half-dozen garlic farms in Wisconsin. Instead of answering questions the teacher did the asking.

The family’s garlic operation is named for the tamarack trees native to Trempealeau County, Wisconsin. The Hovell family has been living for seven generations in the same valley. Although Jason Hovell didn’t grow up on a farm he worked on relatives’ farms in the valley. He continues to help his uncle, Irvin Hovell, with crop work and feeder cattle.

Jason Hovell earned a degree in agricultural education from University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He’s taught at Independence High School since 2008; he currently advises 55 FFA members in 7th through 12th grades. Molly Hovell is also a UW-River Falls graduate. She teaches math at Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau High School. Garlic meshes with teaching careers; harvest is in early July.

The family plants garlic in the fall after the first frost in raised beds 44 inches wide. Although not certified-organic, Tamarack Garlic utilizes organic methods – particularly rotating garlic to fresh ground. Small garlic cloves are planted 2 inches deep with a water-wheel-type transplanter. Three rows are planted 10 inches apart across each raised bed. Plants are placed 6 inches apart within rows.

For insect and disease control they soak the cloves in vodka for 15 minutes prior to planting. Cloves are also soaked for an hour in an organic nutrient-rich fish-emulsion solution prior to planting. No supplemental irrigation is provided. Garlic doesn’t like wet feet, Hovell said. The family mulches with commercial compost from a dairy farm, applying compost 2.5 inches deep.

“Composting keeps weeds away until mid-May,” Hovell said. “We also weed by hand. We don’t use any herbicide even to kill hay ground for planting.”

The family harvests garlic scapes at about June 20 and garlic bulbs at about July 4. Hovell has modified his raised-bed maker with a digging tool to heave plants and loosen soil. Plants are then pulled by hand. One softneck variety and eight hardneck varieties were harvested in 2018. Softneck garlic has a milder flavor and can be braided. It also keeps longer – 12 to 18 months – than hardneck garlic, which keeps about nine months. Hardneck garlic has more complex flavors, Hovell said. His best-growing hardneck variety is Chesnok Red. But he said his personal favorite for flavor is Bogatyr.

“It’s strong-flavored and delicious for garlic bread, spaghetti sauce and lasagna,” he said.

When fresh garlic is chopped or crushed, a compound called allicin forms. Responsible for garlic’s aroma and taste, allicin is believed by some to deliver medicinal anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits.

Post-harvest Hovell uses pneumatic foot-operated shears to sever stems from bulbs. The bulb’s outside protective papery layer is peeled by hand. Bulbs are cured on homemade drying racks in a haymow. The Hovells say they pride themselves on producing quality bulbs. At the Trempealeau County Fair they earned blue ribbons and an award of excellence on the garlic they entered.

“They grow really beautiful garlic,” said Laszlo Marton of Galena Garlic Co. near Galena, Illinois.

He’s purchased garlic from the Hovells. A fellow grower, Marton owns garlic, spice and vinegar stores in Illinois, Indiana and Tennessee. He coordinates the annual Midwest Garlic Fest in Elizabeth, Illinois, where Tamarack Garlic Farm won the 2018 bulb contest.

Another fellow garlic grower, Ryan Guza of Buck Moon Garlic near Independence, Wisconsin, also praises the Hovell family’s garlic-growing prowess. Guza has purchased garlic from Hovell for planting. He’s also been mentored by Hovell and collaborated with him to fill larger orders.

“Jason has been a great resource for me,” Guza said. “We stay in contact during the growing season to determine variables affecting plant growth.”

Tamarack Garlic Farm relies primarily on online sales, both from its farm website and its Facebook page. Hovell estimates half the farm’s projected yield is pre-sold prior to harvest to stores and individuals throughout the United States. Visit www.tamarackgarlicfarm.com or www.midwestgarlicfest.com or contact tamarackgarlicfarm@gmail.com or 608-534-0024 for more information.

Jane Fyksen writes about crops, dairy, livestock and many other agricultural topics; she is the crops editor for Agri-View based in Wisconsin. Contact Jfyksen@madison.com or 715-207-0305 for more information.