Growing Purple Haze Garlic on Redlands Mesa

By Annette Gallagher Weisman
EdibleASPEN – Spring 2012

Garlic, that pungent herb related to the onion family, has long been considered both an aphrodisiac and a talisman to ward off evil spirits.

Nowadays, garlic is hailed as a superfood, reputed to help cure everything from the common cold to cancer. Unless one is allergic to “the stinking rose,” garlic with its many health benefits, such as antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, is just plain good for us.

But that’s not the reason Sven Edstrom and Elsie Winne-Edstrom began growing garlic on their Purple Haze Garlic Farm in Hotchkiss, Colorado; rather, it was for the love of a particular kind of garlic and the opportunity to start their own business.  When Sven and Elsie were attending Fort Lewis College in Durango, Elsie’s mother, Robbie Winne, often sent them the gift of Purple Haze Garlic grown by her friends Nancy Horn and Mark Welsh, who live on Redlands Mesa, a high plateau 15 minutes from downtown Hotchkiss.

Purple Haze Garlic, which is a variety known as heirloom Rocambole, once grew wild at the main fork of the Gunnison River, and has been known by many names. It was first cultivated on Redlands Mesa by a man named Archie Ware in the 1930s and was known as Archie’s Garlic. Then in the late 1980s, when the Welch’s started growing it commercially, it became Homegrown Garlic. Years later, a harvest worker said the sight of the vivid purple and white bulb made him feel like he was in a purple haze. And the name Purple Haze Garlic stuck.

Sven and Elsie grew to love Purple Haze Garlic, finding it caramelized easily, was ideal for roasting and had an especially fragrant spicy taste compared to the blander kind sold commercially. (Back then, the less-pungent Chinese variety of garlic was predominant, and there were no specialty stores or markets selling the hardnecked variety. The Chinese or Californian soft-necked variety, typically found in supermarkets, has many cloves of varying sizes; whereas, when you open a head of Purple Haze Rocambole you’ll find fewer, easier-to-peel cloves of uniform size.)

Sven grew up in Gunnison and Durango and Elsie in Crested Butte and Hotchkiss. They completed an exchange program in California, followed by a short post-college stint in Puerto Rico, after which they moved back to the North Fork Valley. “We found we preferred a smaller, tight-knit community, being close to family and the slower pace of life.”

Soon after their move to Redlands Mesa, Elsie and Sven heard neighbors Nancy and Mark were interested in selling their garlic business. “Purple Haze had instilled in us what good garlic should taste like. So being young and adventurous, we decided, what the heck! Let’s start growing garlic!”

They’ve been growing organic Purple Haze Garlic on one of 32 acres since 2004. The crop itself is about one-half of an acre. “We rotate our crop every year, planting it only in the same ground every third year and planting cover crops to feed the soil in between plantings. Only organic amendments and practices are used to ensure the best quality.”

Garlic is relatively easy to grow, not affected much by frost or predators, but it is labor intensive at certain times of the year, such as weeding and watering in the spring. The garlic begins to flower in June.

“We want the plant’s energy to go to the bulb, not the flower, so we trim the flower or the scape before it matures,” says Sven. “The scapes are delicious to eat when trimmed early and tender. They resemble an onion scallion only with a garlic flavor.”

During harvest, usually late July, Sven hires about a dozen people to dig up the garlic, clean it by hand in the fields and sort by size before sending to the curing area or the braiding tent. “It takes about three to four days to have the crop out of the ground. Before and after harvest there is quite a bit of set up and breakdown that I usually do myself.”

The Edstroms sell their garlic via newsletter to loyal customers throughout the United States. You can buy everything from a loose half pound to beautiful braids of varying lengths. But for now, growing Purple Haze Garlic remains a passion, not a stand-alone commercial enterprise. Last year the farm produced 700 pounds of Purple Haze Rocambole and all were gone within a few weeks, so they’ve initiated a pre-order system to gauge future demand. (This year they hope to produce 1,000 pounds.) The Edstroms plan on increasing production to sell to food distributors and restaurants, trying out alternative growing methods and developing their website to include more Purple Haze Garlic apparel.

You can’t miss Purple Haze Garlic Farm on 2900 Road; at the entrance there’s an old Cruiser bicycle with a braid of garlic dangling from its basket. The surrounding land is extraordinary, incorporating the southern view of the San Juan Mountains with the mouth of the Black Canyon National Park in the foreground. To the east is the West Elk Mountain range with Lamborn Mountain backed by the West Elk Wilderness. And to the north and west lies the Grand Mesa and the Uncampahgre Plateau.

Wafting across the fields in July during harvest, when the air is redolent with the scent of garlic, and again at the post-celebratory party with family and friends in August, one can hear the sound of Jimi Hendrix singing “Purple Haze.” The aroma is enhanced by potluck garlic dishes brought by attendees (some recipes on the website) and neighbor Basil Webb’s Garlic Martinis.

Living here brings its own rewards, which Sven says include, “Being outside in a beautiful farming environment and sharing the best garlic I know with friends and family as well as all of our customers.”

Purple Haze Garlic Farm
14414-2900 Road, Hotchkiss
(970) 872-1098