April 19, 2012 - Grow a better garlic and the world will beat a path to your doorstep. In the case of Bob Anderson of Coleman County, who is known far and wide as the "Garlicmeister," the world ended up beating a path to his website. "I set up on the information super highway instead of the local highway," he explained. "That changed everything."
That came after several years of growing garlic commercially and selling it at farmers markets in Austin, Dallas Fort Worth and Georgetown. The world wasn't beating a path to his doorstep in those days, but people at the markets beat a path to his booth. Business was good. If anything, it was too good.
Anderson and his wife Merridee were spending so much time selling their garlics -- some 80 varieties -- that they ran out of time to actually grow garlic.
"We tried to hire help, but that didn't work," Bob said. "We basically opened a farmers market for people who grow gourmet garlic organically, or chemical free. That's really the only way to grow it, especially if you want to grow it more than one year. We can process credit cards, which a lot of small producers can't do. We find customers and take a commission. In most cases, we're right at the top of search engines because I've tried to include everything I've learned about garlic on the site."
(All things garlic can be found at gourmetgarlicgardens.com)
Bob has learned a lot about garlic since he and Meridee moved from Denton, to her father's ranch in Brownwood, in 1990, before the days of the Internet. "I went from being a computer management consultant to a cowboy," he said.
The path to being a Garlicmeister started when Merridee brought home some white garlic one day and Bob suggested they eat it. Merridee wanted to plant it. "We compromised," he said. "We planted it."
Since then, Anderson has become a self-proclaimed, but legitimate, Garlicmeister. He has been profiled in the New York Times, which recommended his garlic as the best in the country, and in national magazines like Forbes, Food and Wine and Mother Earth. The "Texas Country Reporter" aired a segment about the Garlicmeister.
"We never advertised," he said. "We didn't have to. A lot of people would give anything to have that kind of publicity, but all we did was set up the website and they came to us."
The Andersons started with four growers and now work with about 14, including Terry Vanderpool of China Springs. Vanderpool acknowledges Anderson as a "garlic guru" and grows about 50 varieties at his own place, including a Texas heirloom variety that he calls Texas Rose. Anderson introduced Vanderpool to the variety and said he got it from David Pitre of Tecolote Farm in Manor. Pitre told him he got it from the Bujnock family in Hallettsville.
"All the family knew about it was that they had been growing it for 30 years and they got it from Mexico," Vanderpool said. "It's an amazing and unique garlic. I asked them what they called it and they said they just called it garlic. I felt like it needed to be named, so we call in Texas Rose."
Many varieties of garlic are grown in many countries, but most of the garlic in grocery stores is white garlic from China, which Anderson believes is not as good or as good for you as other garlics. Some Polish, German and Italian immigrants brought garlic with them when they came to this country, but most of the varieties available now through growers like Anderson and Vanderpool came all at once, in 1989, after the fall of the former Soviet Union.
The USDA had long been interested in the garlics grown in the Caucasus region of Russia, but because the area was also home to the county's missile bases the Soviets said "Nyet!" when the USDA asked to inspect the garlic. In 1989, after the Soviet Union dissolved, USDA scientists were allowed in, but even then, they were only allowed to work at night, along the old Silk Road, gathering garlic from local markets and naming the cultivars after the town or village where they were purchased.
"Garlic grows wild over there between rocks and boulders, with very little soil at all," Anderson said. "It never learned to compete with other plants for its survival. To grow great garlic, you have to keep it as weed-free as you can."
For garlic growers, that means getting down on hands and knees and pulling the weeds. To combat mites and diseases, Anderson soaks the cloves in water and baking soda and then soaks them again for three or four minutes in rubbing alcohol or 100-proof vodka just prior to planting.
"That kills all the mites and their eggs," he said. "The damage isn't apparent until after you've harvested it. By the time you notice it, it's too late." immediately before planting.
Anderson said there are 10 varietal groups of garlic and hundreds of subspecies, or cultivars. A few of the dozens of varieties he grows includes porcelain, purple striped, rocambole and Creole.
"I have to find a way to get Creole garlic to Louisiana," he said.
Those and many others can be found hanging to dry in his barn after harvest.
"You won't see a garlic barn, with his much garlic hanging, in too many places," he said, adding that the tobacco barns of the Southeast might be the closest parallel, but the parallel ends there. Anderson believes that garlic is as good for you as tobacco is bad for you.
"Garlic will kill things that commercial antibiotics won't kill," he said. "It kills in a different way. Antibiotics bond to the receptor. Garlic is drawn to the bacteria. Sulfenic acid in the garlic breaks down into another compound called allicin, which kills bacteria by penetrating the cell walls and causing them to burst."
Anderson also cites a 1936 study showing that just the vapors from nearby crushed garlic can kill bacteria up to eight inches away in four hours. He recommends crushed garlic in bath water to get the garlic into the circulation.
He has a litany of jokes about garlic breath, suggesting that his passion for garlic is one reason he lives so far out in the country.
"Naturally, I've met a lot of people with garlic breath over the years," he said. "The one thing they all had in common was they were always smiling."