Bernier Garlic: The Story of One Sonoma County Farming Family and their Renowned Crop

By October 29, 2017 Blog
Meg Rottinghaus at Healdsburg SHED holding Yael’s braided garlic

The fires of October 2017 ravaged Sonoma County farms and disrupted the lives of farmers. But the fires also spared some farms and those farmers who were fortunate went on growing food for people. That’s what Yael and Paul and Zureal Bernier did.

The sign in their house reads, “There’s never too much garlic.” It’s not just for show and it’s not a hollow slogan, either. There’s usually an abundance of garlic, which is known to its fans as “the stinking rose.”

Few kitchens are without it. At SHED, co-founder Cindy Daniel—who knows all about kitchens, cooks, condiments and lots more— considers it as essential as onions and herbs. [We agree.]

Garlic isn’t the only crop the Berniers grow. They also cultivate and harvest tomatoes, corn, turnips, asparagus, eggplant, table grapes, melons, winter squash and more. But garlic has spread their fame far and wide, and, when they planted it in October 2017, as fires swirled all around them, it also seemed to me that they were planting seeds of hope.

Yael Bernier peeling a glove of garlic

Yael Bernier peeling a glove of garlic, showing how easy this is with local, seasonal garlic.

The last of last season’s garlic drying in the barn at the Alexander Valley farm.

The Berniers grow more garlic now than ever before, and sell more of it, too, and, while it has helped to keep them healthy it hasn’t made them wealthy. Long ago Paul gave up the idea that he’d grow a miraculous crop that would enable him to put enough money in the bank and never have to worry about bills again.

More garlic is grown globally these days than ever before, much of it in China, where it’s exported around the world. The Chinese grow 20 million tons of garlic; the U.S. grows a small fraction of that: 175-thousand tons.

The Berniers don’t grow a huge amount, but they grow some of the best garlic in the North Bay and perhaps in all of California. Over the years, they’ve shown that one doesn’t have to live and work in Gilroy, which calls itself “the garlic capital of the world,” to treat garlic royally.

Meg Rottinghaus at SHED with Yael Bernier's Braided Garlic

Meg Rottinghaus at SHED with Yael Bernier’s Braided Garlic

For years, I’ve admired Yael and Paul from afar, though increasingly, I’ve come to know them up-close and personal. I met them in June at a feast that took place on the land they farm in Alexander Valley. (They also farm in Dry Creek Valley.)

I learned that we belong to the same generation and that we share a love for what’s local, organic and fresh and that we also revere the Slow Food trinity (“Good, Clean and Fair”) that Carlo Petrini, the father of Slow Food, has popularized in books like Slow Food Nation.

Nowithstanding its bumper sticker Bernier Farms is alive and kicking with generational transition taken care of.

It was my own love of garlic that brought me to the Bernier’s farm in Dry Creek Valley on a Tuesday in October, the second day of the big fires that swept across northern California.

Paul greeted me in the driveway where he was working on one of his machines. It was not long after the end of the harvest in the vineyard.

“We’re graped out,” Paul said and talked about harvests past and present and his dreams both big and small. Before long, he brought me into the kitchen of the farmhouse where Yael was waiting to drive me to the field where the annual garlic planting was to take place.

With us on the journey were her grandsons, Arlo, 11, and Henry, 9, who have grown up with garlic and who swear by its powers.

“A garlic clove a week keeps the snivels away,” Henry told me and added that he didn’t have a single snivel.

“We indoctrinated them in the ways of garlic,” Yael said.

Henry shot back, “No you haven’t.”

Henry, Yael’s & Paul’s grandson, driving the tractor

Henry, Yael’s & Paul’s grandson, driving the tractor

We arrived at the field ten minutes after the planting had started. The crew of four was halfway through the first row. All of them wore facemasks so that they didn’t have to breath the smoke-filled air from the fires.

The crew (Hagai, Zureal & Robin) panting garlic.

The crew (Hagai, Zureal & Robin) panting garlic.

Zureal drove the tractor that dragged behind it three field workers who were kneeling on small saucers that saved their backs and their legs, as well as time and energy.

“We didn’t have to go looking for these workers,” Yael explained. “They came to us. Now, they’re living with us and sharing meals.”

Alex comes from Russia, Hagai from Israel, while Robin, who planted garlic with the Berniers two years ago, is a U.S. citizen. She’s a wanderer who goes wherever she finds work and works wherever she goes.

She’s also a lover of “the stinking rose.” She pickles it and she also mixes it with olive oil and parsley to make what Italians call aglio e olio and that’s perfect with pasta.

All that day, and for days afterward, Robin and the crew would plant seventeen rows of twelve different varieties of garlic. That would add up to more than one-quarter of a ton of garlic seed. The work was unusually slow because the ground was hard and dry. Robin explained that she had to “screw the seeds into the earth.” Zureal added, “It’s not boom, boom, boom.”

He looked over the field and estimated that in June and July of 2018 they would harvest two-and-a-half tons of garlic that they would sell at farmers’ markets and at local restaurants like SHED in Healdsburg.

Conversation interrupted: Food writer Jonah Raskin talks garlic with Yael Bernier, pioneer garlic grower in Sonoma County.

Conversation interrupted: Food writer Jonah Raskin talks garlic with Yael Bernier, pioneer garlic grower in Sonoma County.

On that morning in October, Spanish Roja was the first variety that went into the ground; Silverskin was the last. The garlic would be irrigated until the rainy season began and nature took over. As soon as the garlic seed reached moisture it put down roots and sent up foliage. It would grow steadily through the winter.

Gophers love it and attack it, but on the Bernier farm there’s no menace from deer and wild pigs as there is in some rural parts of western Sonoma County. Fungus can be a problem, but they apply an organic fungicide that keeps it under control.

After an hour or so, the crew took a break. Zureal harvested a ripe cantaloupe melon, cut it into slices and distributed them to one and all.

Mid-morning break

Mid-morning break

In the car on the way back to the house, Yael recounted the history of garlic, which she described as “one of the oldest plants in human civilization,” with more than 200 varieties that are grown on every continent, except Antarctica.

Yael grew up in San Francisco, and from an early age learned to appreciate fresh produce and good food.

One of her favorite ways to use garlic is to chop it, then blend it, using a fork, with olive oil and butter, then spread it on French bread and bake it in the oven.

In the 1970s, while living in Penngrove, an elderly Italian woman named Mrs. Lucchini, gave Yael ten heads of garlic and explained, “This is from the old country.”

Yael grew her first garlic crop using the variety that Mrs. Lucchini gave her. She also made her own cheese from goat’s milk, and then, while Balkan dancing, she met Paul. By that time, she had changed her given name, Marilyn, to Yael, that she explained, means “wild, female, mountain goat.”

She and Paul married and settled down. Early in their life together they knew that they would not grow just one crop, but rather many. Like their friend, Lou Preston, they diversified and are happy they did.

In 2001, Yael wrote and published an article titled “Never Enough Garlic” in which he noted that it was “easy to get confused about the classifications of garlic.” Then, she explained them clearly and concisely, and honored the memory of Mrs. Lucchini.

“From her I leaned most of what I know about gardening,” Yael wrote.

Yael has also appeared on Michelle Anna Jordan’s radio show, “Mouthful,” to sing the praises of garlic. At farmers’ markets these days, she helps to educate shoppers about “the stinking rose.”

Now, she’s proud that Zureal likes to grow it and that, as she puts it, “he’s good at growing garlic.” Indeed, while his parents represent the story of garlic past, he embodies the story of garlic future.

Outside the farmhouse again, Yael talked about Sonoma County agriculture.

“We’re ground zero for innovative and organic farming,” she said. “The weather is great for year-round cultivation, though land in Dry Creek and elsewhere is too expensive for us to buy it and own it. We have a 15-year-lease.”

On the subject of the fires that raged around us, she added, “You don’t know what good is until you know what bad is. Tragedy opens the heart. We’re resilient. We bounce back.”

Paula Downing has known and admired Yael and Paul for decades.

“They do their job, which is to feed and nurture people and to care for the land that they love,” Downing said. “They do it with integrity.”

Indeed, they do and in drought, flood, fire, sun, wind and rain.

The Berniers also cultivate and harvest tomatoes, corn, turnips, asparagus, eggplant, table grapes, melons, winter squash and more.

The Berniers also cultivate and harvest tomatoes, corn, turnips, asparagus, eggplant, table grapes, melons, winter squash and more.

Jonah Rakin, Food and Agriculture Writer for Slow Food Russian RiverJonah Raskin is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California, and a member of Slow Food Russian River.

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