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He gave up dairy cows to grow garlic

WILSON – Bruce Muck pulls a head of garlic the size of a child’s fist from one of the six tables that stretch 100 feet in his airy Wilson barn. He starts peeling the paper-thin white skin back to reveal the rich purple color beneath, as excited as a kid on Christmas Day.

“This is the best I’ve ever had and it’s been the driest weather I’ve ever had,” the garlic farmer from Wilson said with a chuckle. “This is also the most I’ve ever had. And, I tell people it’s exceptional.”

He plants only German white hardneck, because, he said simply, “I like it best” and last fall, he planted 1,300 pounds, culled from the previous year’s crop.

Muck and his family and a few other helpers pulled the entire crop by hand in one day in July and it filled seven wagons. They then laid it out on 4-foot-wide screen tables that stretched from one end of the 120-foot barn to the other, to dry in front of giant fans.

He and his wife, Bonnie, take the garlic to farmers markets on Saturdays – he to Williamsville, while she heads off to North Tonawanda.

Muck hasn’t always been a garlic farmer. He had raised dairy cows for three decades on his 350-acre spread in Wilson.

“My wife and I were married 30 years and she said, ‘That’s enough,’ ” he recalled, waiting a beat like any good storyteller. “That’s enough of dairy farming, I mean, not of marriage.”

Muck recalled that the couple was up to 90 milkers at their peak, in a demanding career that lasted from 1970 to 2000.

“Bonnie and I have been married 46 years,” he added. “She’s been a big part of it (farming). And, she’s supported my crazy ideas.”

Muck started growing garlic the year he finished dairy farming. He and his family still grow hay, soybeans and corn – and of course, popcorn, which is the staple of their business, The Kernel. The family sells popcorn in flavors like caramel and chocolate peanut crunch from a tidy little shop next to their farmhouse at 3490 Wilson-Cambria Road, as well as at Blackman Farms near Lockport and Becker Farms near Gasport.

Muck, 71, recently took time from his chores to talk about his family, farm life – the only one he’s ever known outside of a short stint with the U.S. Army – and, of course, garlic.

How long have you had this farm and did you, yourself, grow up on a farm?

I leased this farm for a couple of years before we got married and then we moved here and started with 38 milking cows. I’d milk another guy’s cows at 5 a.m., come home and milk mine, then go back and milk his later in the day and come back and milk mine. Bonnie was teaching school. We did this for one year.

Then, the second year, she still taught school, but I just milked our own cows and then the third year we had our first son and Bonnie didn’t go back to teaching. But within seven years, we had paid off this farm and we did it with 38 cows. Isn’t that amazing? You couldn’t do that today.

I grew up on a little farm in Amherst. My Dad worked for the Town of Amherst, but my mother liked cows, so they had a little farm.

So you raised your children on the farm?

We did and I think it was good for them. Aaron is an engineer now in Cincinnati, Ohio, and he and his wife have four kids. Andy is an emergency room doctor in San Antonio, Texas, and he and his wife have three kids and are foster parents to a 4-month-old boy. And Seth works with me here on our farm and also works on another farm, and he and his wife have two kids. So we have nine grandchildren.

I bet you’ve seen a lot of changes in the nearly 50 years you’ve been farming in Wilson. What are some of them?

There were maybe 15 dairy farms in Wilson when I started and now there’s one left. I’m the little guy now because it’s all big (crop) farms.

How did you make the decision to raise garlic?

My cousin, Larry, got me started, as well as the late Don Pyskaty -- who sold me seed and gave me pointers. Elmer Moje, who is 103 now, also gave me a lot of pointers. They were very sharing of their knowledge.

Can you take us through the entire process?

I never plant garlic before Columbus Day, so after Oct. 12, Bonnie and Seth plant while I drive the tractor. We’ll put in 1,300 pounds again.

I don’t spray anything on it, but I do use commercial fertilizer, so it’s not organic. I don’t have a problem with organic, but it takes an exceptional person to grow organic.

We hand-weed and cultivate. I think we weeded this crop three times, cultivated six times and hoed it four times. A woman named Maria helps us hoe. And it was weedless. I think the weeds would take the nutrients and moisture from the plants.

On a Tuesday in July, I cultivated and undercut it and at 7 a.m. Wednesday, Bonnie and I and our grandsons, Caleb (12) and Nathan (11) dug it up by hand. And our grandchildren Emerick (11) and Bella (8) helped, too. Our son, Seth, and three guys loaded it onto seven wagons and by lunchtime, we had picked all but four rows. We had 34 rows over three acres. By 3 p.m., it was all picked and loaded.

In this dry summer, did you irrigate?

Not at all.

Do you eat it?

I like it roasted or pickled and Bonnie uses it in cooking. She’s an excellent cook.

You use your heifer barn to dry and store your garlic. Do you miss your cows?

My Holsteins were productive. My Jerseys were small but important (smile). They had quirky personalities.

I miss the camaraderie I had with the other dairy farmers. So, Bonnie and I go to the Erie County Fair every year and pass out free pens for Milk for Health.

I also started raising chickens this past year and I think I enjoy this even more than growing garlic. They’re weird little things with personalities.

In addition to the farmers markets mentioned above, Muck sells eggs and seed and table stock garlic from his roadside stand at 3490 Wilson-Cambria Road, Wilson, and can also be reached at 523-9951 or at bmuck@juno.com for larger orders.

Know a Niagara County resident who would make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Niagara Weekend Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email niagaranews@buffnews.com.

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