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Douglas County is biggest producer of garlic and onions in Nevada

by Linda Hiller

It ain’t hay. The unusual looking crops seen along Highway 395 both north and south of town are crops that pioneering Carson Valley farmers may never have grown, but they could have, if there was a market.

Crops of garlic, onions and carrots are now grown for seed, dehydration and eating by several farmers in scattered locations in the Valley. Douglas County is the largest garlic producer in Nevada, with up to 700 acres in the bulb crop, according to longtime garlic farmer, Jerry Rosse.

Most of the land used is leased from resident Valley farmers and ranchers by Rosse and Jim Snyder – both who also farm in Smith and Mason valleys.

Snyder, who farms 120 acres of garlic in the Carson Valley, said growing garlic is a challenge, but one he’s up to.

“Compared to growing onions, the garlic is rather intense,” he said. “Garlic is subject to freezing, which hurt us this year in December. We lost a good 25 to 30 percent of the crop and had some damage to the remainder, but we had 60 percent survive. Back in 1991, we did have a severe winter loss in Mason Valley.”

Snyder plants in September and October, usually with the contract already signed by his buyer.

“We sell to two main buyers, Christopher Ranch and Rogers Foods,” he said.

Some of it goes to make seed, some is dehydrated into garlic powder and some may go to fresh product, he said. It all depends on the buyer’s needs.

After planting, the ground is irrigated until the shoots start to come up, in about a month. From March to June, irrigation takes place, and is stopped so the plant can dry and season. The harvest takes place the end of July and beginning of August.

– Early harvest. Another garlic farmer, Jerry Rosse of High Sierra Garlic, farms 140 acres in the Carson Valley and has already begun to harvest his garlic fields, starting with some Chinese garlic to be sold as seed. That central Carson Valley crop was grown on property leased from rancher Arnold Settelmeyer.

“That harvest was a little disappointing,” Rosse said. “It’s an earlier plant, but the seed we got to plant last fall was damaged, I think.”

Rosse, who has grown garlic for 25 years – five of that in the Carson Valley – said the Valley is conducive to growing this bulb crop because the area is largely disease-free and the high altitude and cold winters serve the plant well.

A long period of sub-zero cold will damage the crop, however, which is what happened last winter. A fungus called white rot is one of the things feared most by garlic farmers, which (knock wood) isn’t a major problem here.

Harvest for the garlic is either by hand or by machine. If the ground is wet, it will be hand-picked, but if conditions are just right, they’ll use the garlic bulker machine, which works like a potato digger, Snyder said.

Afterwards, it will sit in a bag on the field for a week or so to dry and cure and then go to market.

– Uncertain future. Snyder, who has been growing garlic for 15 years, said the garlic industry in the United States is facing an uncertain future due to some recent changes.

“Last year, the big dehydrators had a shortage of suppliers in the US, so they brought in product from China,” he said. “This year, some of the dehydrators are sticking with the Chinese suppliers, which will really hurt us. The garlic industry is facing some major challenges. Looking down the road, it doesn’t look good.”

– Those are onions? The onion fields in the Valley are easily seen from the west side of Highway 395 on Settelmeyer’s ranch, and on the west side of the road at the entrance to the Lahontan Fish Hatchery south of Gardnerville.

Onion growing involves planting male and female plants and using bees to pollinate, according to Rosse, who planted and manages both fields.

The process is a two-year cycle, he said, starting with seed and getting the onion bulb the first year and then letting the plant produce seed the second year if a seed crop is desired. By the time the plant has flowered and produced seeds, the bulb will be all gone – its energy and mass spent on reproduction.

Many of the onions grown in Mason Valley will be sold as market onions, Rosse said.

– And carrots? The same is true for the carrots grown for seed in the field next to the onions near the fish hatchery.

Those plants have been there for two years, and by now the carrots – the orange part, that is – will be almost gone as the plant has reached five feet tall and the seed is being set. This now-fragrant crop was grown for seed, will be harvested soon and the seeds will be packaged and sold as carrot seed.

Both Snyder and Rosse, as well as any of the farmers in any of the valleys, have to work in concert with Mother Nature and hope she smiles back at them no matter what they grow.

“We have to pay attention to water, weather, disease, insects and weeds,” Rosse said. “There’s a lot to consider. For example, we have to be careful not to hurt our bees if we spray for insect problems.”

Rosse said his carrot crop had a problem with an insect this year and needed spraying with a pesticide. The bees had to be removed for the spraying, and then re-introduced, he said.

Rosse said he would welcome passers-by to come and ask questions if they see the garlic, onion and carrot seed harvesting taking place in the next few weeks.

“We live it and do it every day, but I guess you could say it’s a pretty interesting process,” he said.