From a fragrant warehouse outside Madison, a handful of workers ship 70,000 pounds of garlic each year to gardeners and garlic lovers across the country.
Keen Garlic, a family-owned company, has been selling heirloom cloves for planting and eating since it was launched as Keen Organics nearly 15 years ago. At the time, owner Keane Hollenbeck and his wife, Cindy Hollenbeck, were raising chicken and vegetables on Marshall’s farm and stalls at various farmers’ markets in the Madison area.
In 2008 they created a website to sell garlic. It sold out quickly, but a local farmer noticed other farmers still had plenty of garlic when selling at his market.
These farmers began offering to sell Hollenbeck 50 or 100 pounds of their crops. “It started really organically, and they said, ‘We can actually plant more to sell next year,'” Cindy said.
The company prides itself on paying farmers more per pound than some of the larger cooperatives. “We know what it takes to grow it,” Cindy said. “It’s very important for farmers to know, ‘OK, we can plant crops in the fall and we know there will be buyers in the summer.'”
Today, the family grows an acre of their own garlic on rented land from Terra Growers in Waunakee, plus purchases from about 60 small farms. Most are in Wisconsin, but others are in Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois. All use organic practices, but not all are certified organic, says Cindy.
Most of these farms grow an acre or less of garlic for the company. , which is the maximum amount a farmer can grow.
40 breeds, 50 states
From its unpretentious warehouse at 4027 Owl Creek Drive, just off Voges Road, far south of Madison, the company sells about 40 varieties of garlic. All can be eaten or planted, but Keane recommends planting the largest cloves, each of which will produce its own jumbo head.
“Look how beautiful this is,” Cindy said, showing off a plump head from the latest shipment trucked in from Hutterite Farms in Minnesota. … I grew up with loving care.”
Business in the warehouse was booming during the COVID-19 pandemic, Cindy said, and people were looking for ways to eat healthier and grow their own food. The company has customers in all of her 50 states, and cold winter-adapted garlic in the Midwest seems to grow well almost everywhere, she said.
One of our best-selling varieties, the palm-sized German Extra Hardy has a germination rate of over 99%. The company also posts advice on how to grow, harvest, treat and store garlic on its website.
“That’s why we keep getting customers back year after year,” she said. “If their garlic grows and is successful, they will come back.”
Our staff sorts all heads before packing and shipping, pulling out any that are broken or too small. Last month, to avoid staff shortages, the company installed a custom-built packaging machine designed to handle the garlic without breaking it. Weighed and packed in
“We only send out the best, and if they’re not happy, we’ll replace it,” says Cindy. “I don’t want to spend a dime to reship.”
Heads that don’t meet the company’s shipping standards often make their way to a kitchen in the back of the warehouse, where staff freeze-dry or dehydrate them to create condiments like grained garlic and smoked salt. They also sell a line of products made from garlic stalks, which are the green flower buds of the plant. Cindy is especially fond of freeze-dried scapes, an unsalted snack. “It’s almost like a healthy funun… but no junk at all,” she said.
Other less-than-perfect heads are donated to farms like Forward Gardens in Middleton, where children learn to grow their own crops and produce for their pantry.
“If you can give them 50 pounds of garlic, they will harvest 300 pounds of garlic.
Currently in its busiest season, the company currently relies on about 10 workers, most of whom are seasonal. The first customer will order in his March when the new online catalog will be posted. Farmers will begin fall harvest in late August, and the company aims to ship all heads within four weeks of arrival. The actual deadline is the first week of October, as it needs to be planted.
This means working “20 hours a day, seven days a week” and trying to ship at least 500 orders a day, Cindy says.
But given the little bit of financial security they give their farmers, and the joy they give their customers, it’s worth it.
“You can see the satisfaction in their faces,” said Keane. I love it.”
“People are so excited about growing garlic,” agreed Cindy. “It’s contagious.”
What are the most important values that drive your work?
Cindy: Teaching others how to grow garlic so they can provide the highest quality seed stock.
How do you create the kind of community you want to live in?
Cindy: All of us who grow garlic live an organic lifestyle and believe that we are making the world a better place simply by providing…
Keen: A cleaner food source.
Cindy: Yes, nutritious garlic — we do it organically, not pollute the planet. And farmers and all of us can work together as a team.
Do you have any advice for other aspiring entrepreneurs?
Cindy: Keane has always been a do-it-yourselfer, but in the last few years we have had to seriously consider the resources available and bring their expertise to the table to ensure they are doing their best. There was.
Keen: Get help from an expert in the field.
Cindy: Absolutely. Keen wants to continue expanding Garlic because he feels there are significant benefits to his community and local farmers by providing consumers with Wisconsin products. That’s why we’re looking for entrepreneurs who want to join our team.