We wanted to learn a little more about what it's like to be a Certified Naturally Grown garlic farmer, so we spoke with Jana Yockey of Garlic Gods in the Magic Valley region Idaho, which became certified in June of 2020. With a farm name like that, we knew they'd have some insight to share!
We are in Heyburn, Idaho. We are a high desert that is known as the "Magic Valley" because the area was nothing but sand, sagebrush, and old volcano tubes with a major water source running through (the Snake River). The river was dammed and the canal system was structured in the early 1900's. The Magic Valley consists of 8 counties and is now the most agriculturally productive area in the US Northwest.
CNG: How long have you been farming?
My great-great grandparents were some of the original homesteaders in the Magic Valley in 1908. We are still farming the same land that they settled. I have taken several sabbaticals from the farm, leaving for college and living in Boise for several years and then taking a detour to Florida were I met my husband Geoff, who grew up on a small farm in Tennessee. We moved back to Idaho a year after we married and have been full time farmers ever since.
CNG: How did you first get into farming, and how did you eventually decide to grow garlic?
Once we moved back to Idaho, some of the land that my dad and grandfather had farmed for years had been sold or rented to other farmers, so we needed to find a product that we could farm on a very limited acreage.
We considered several different specialty crops when a neighbor told us he had a friend who grew garlic, was retiring, and did very well on 4-6 acres a year growing garlic. We got the address and knocked on his door, talked with him for hours on end and bought out his seed stock and the implement to "pop" the holes in the ground for perfect spacing.
CNG: Why is it important that your garlic farm is Certified Naturally Grown?
When we first moved back to Idaho, I was attending classes to become certified organic. At one of those classes we met Richard Feucht, who is CNG farmer at Prairie Winds Heritage Farm.
He talked about Certified Naturally Grown with so much passion that I looked it up when I got home. Several months later I was talking with a farmer in Texas that also mentioned CNG and said he preferred them to certified organic, again with passion for the peer inspections and farmers keeping farmers in check. Growing naturally is hard, and when someone next door sees the work you do and does the same things to keep their ground and crops more natural it is encouraging, like having a gym partner that makes you show up every day.
Sometimes it is saddening to drive by fields that don't have weeds but hasn't had anyone physically walking the land for weeks, where we are out with hoe in hand to keep the weeds at bay. It's a matter of finish and start over, keep ahead of it. But when you dig down and find the earthworms and the dark rich land you know you are doing the right thing. Chemicals are killing the soil. I grew up on the farm doing the same things we do today, but traditional farming has changed and it is hurting the end customers with all the cheap food full of poisons that make the fields look pretty. I believe that Certified Naturally Grown reflects my farming values and reassures customers that I'm growing garlic using ecological methods.
CNG: Please tell us about any farming heroes or mentors of yours.
My Dad. He retired a few years ago, but he is still up and out in the garden or working on an old tractor before dawn, at it all day, and in bed by 9 so he can start all over again. He never stopped, not when I was growing up, not now. He is very inspiring.
CNG: How did you come to have a commitment to sustainability?
I had noticed insects disappearing; worms, grasshoppers, junebugs, bees, mayflies. At first I didn't think much about it.
When I first met my husband he had some major digestive issues. There are things his body won't tolerate and it has been hard on his overall health for over 15 years. After meeting him, I became more aware of other people and the stories about their health; skin issues, seizures, headaches, cancers, etc. Even with 'good diets' and most people didn't see a change unless they started growing their own food (or buying from verified sources).
After health awareness my attention came back to the insects. What happened, why are there very few, if any left? It's puzzling that other farmers aren't asking the same questions.
I feel that eventually farming will return to a grass roots, sustainable growing. Even people that live in an apartment can grow some garden herbs in their kitchen windows or a bunch of lettuce or tomatoes on their patios. It's hard, I know it's hard with all the stuff going on in life, but your body feels so much better. And health, for the rest of my life, is why I continue to grow in a sustainable way. I want those earthworms and other microorganisms growing in my soil, it makes me happy, and I want to have the drive and energy that my Dad has, wanting to get up and get outside at any age--it's a drive for my life.
CNG: What is your favorite fact about garlic?
Garlic has been used for thousands of years and has even been found in ancient Egyptian tombs. The Egyptians believed that garlic would protect the pharaoh's body from evil spirits in the next life. They believed in this protection so strongly that they would eat cloves of garlic before taking any journey at night to shield them from misfortune and evil, and that the garlic would also provide them with strength.