The Garlic Room at Sisters Garlic Co. smells of heaven: earthy, tangy, warm and inviting. Built near the barn of the historic Southland Farm near Hamilton, this is a perfect showcase for one of Loudoun’s newer farming businesses.
Leesburg lawyer Peter Burnett and his daughters Abbey Burnett Spencer and Ellie Burnett Wallace started their artisanal garlic mining four years ago on their family’s farm. And what they grow is a far cry from the garlic many of us are used to: generic white bulbs, often from California or China, treated with chemicals to preserve shelf life. Much like the wine grapes that have become ubiquitous in the western landscape of Loudoun, garlic is a diverse and fascinating crop, with hundreds of cultivars and dramatic differences in flavor and color.
“You don’t get an ordinary Jane, a soft-necked white garlic that doesn’t have a lot of flavor,” Burnett said. “The product is so remarkably different from what you buy at the grocery store.”
The business is based on the former turkey farm near Hamilton that Burnett and his wife Diana bought in 1978, and where the couple have raised racehorses for years. Now the farmhouse’s airy barn is filled with cured garlic hanging from the rafters every summer.
The father and daughter team started the garlic farm on a whim after tasting local garlic at farmers’ markets. Both sisters inherited their mother’s love for cooking, and Burnett is an avid researcher who delved deeply into the world of garlic cultivars once he caught the virus. In 2017, the trio decided to go it alone, starting with 300 cloves from the local stock.
“We were like, ‘Let’s just put on a bunch of bulbs and see what happens,’” Burnett said.
Burnett used existing farm equipment to build a planter. Each fall, the two sisters climb onto their backs and place the cloves in rows. After the long growing season, the family harvest each bulb by hand in mid-summer of the following year. Burnett and Wallace unearthed approximately 4,000 bulbs this summer. But Burnett had since found a cutter bar that loosens the soil below and makes harvesting easier.
“We look forward to that next year,” Burnett said with a laugh.
Burnett and his daughters harness both the passion for local cuisine that took Loudoun by storm and the growing Americans’ love story for garlic. Garlic consumption in the United States has quadrupled since 1980, according to Penn State University, and now stands at two pounds per person per year.
“People go crazy for it and they see a lot of health benefits,” Burnett said.
For Spencer and Wallace, the garlic business is an opportunity to reconnect with the beautiful farm where they grew up and to maintain strong family ties. Wallace is a teacher in Alexandria and Spencer recently moved from Leesburg to North Carolina with her young family. But the two sisters are regularly at the family farm.
“It continued our attachment to the farm even though we don’t live here anymore,” Spencer said.
She remembers spending hours every day weeding the garlic field with two toddlers in the summer of 2019, and finding peace and zen in the garlic field.
“It really makes you slow down,” she said.
And when Wallace’s husband proposed, he chose his wife’s happy place – the garlic field – as a backdrop.
On a recent late summer afternoon, three generations gathered on the farm to show off the sights and smells of the farm. This season they plan to plant eight to ten different varieties and are still learning the ins and outs of garlic.
“We’ve only scratched the surface of all the different cultivars,” Wallace said.
Wallace likes the spicy Thai Purple variety, while Spencer, a University of Montana graduate, has a soft spot for the hardy, hard-necked Montana Zemo. Burnett loves earthy and flavorful Rocambole varieties. But all three say there is still a lot of experimentation to be done. This season, Burnett plans to test a new marbled variety with a shelf life of up to nine months.
The sisters are also still experimenting with sales and marketing plans for the products. Garlic has a much longer shelf life than other local products, but remains a seasonal product and most varieties will not last until the holidays. This summer, Burnett’s law firm purchased much of the season’s harvest and handed out Christmas garlic-based gift bags in July to community volunteers who helped with Ampersand Food. Local pantry.
The sisters have set up a website and may increase their sales next summer. They are also seeking a license to eventually sell peeled and preserved products.
“We want to get there but we haven’t done it yet,” Spencer said.
For now, the Sisters Garlic team is preparing for its fifth harvest, with planting scheduled for early November. Garlic takes up to eight months to grow. Growers plant in late fall to allow roots to take hold, followed by a period of dormancy during the winter. Then, as the soil temperature rises in the spring, the plants experience a period of intense growth. Almost half of each bulb’s growth takes place in the last 30 days before harvest, Burnett said.
After harvest, the garlic hardens in the barn for three to six weeks, with long stems hanging from the rafters. Growers cut off the dried stems and gently clean the papery outer layer before putting the crop to dry.
Spencer has been a vegetarian since elementary school and said the flavors and versatility of artisanal garlic make it perfect for plant-based cooking. It is also packed with vitamins and minerals.
“It’s something that I could really promote,” she said. “You can use it for anything.”
For more information on Sisters Garlic Co., visit sistersgarlicco.com. For fall updates and fun bulb-burst videos, follow the farm on Instagram @sistersgarlic.