The garlic room at Sisters Garlic Co. smells like heaven: earthy, zesty, homey, and inviting. Built near the barn at historic Southland Farm near Hamilton, it’s a perfect showcase for one of Loudoun’s newest agricultural ventures.
Leesburg attorney Peter Burnett and his daughters Abbey Burnett Spencer and Ellie Burnett Wallace started their artisanal garlic operation four years ago at their family’s farm. And what they’re growing is a far cry from the garlic many of us are used to: generic white bulbs, often from California or China, treated with chemicals to preserve shelf life. Just like the wine grapes that have become ubiquitous in the western Loudoun landscape, garlic is a diverse and fascinating crop, with hundreds of cultivars and dramatic differences in flavor and color.
“You don’t get a plain Jane, white, soft-neck garlic that doesn’t have a whole lot of taste,” Burnett said. “The product is so remarkably different from what you buy in the grocery store.”
The company is based out of the former turkey farm near Hamilton that Burnett and his wife Diana bought in 1978, and where the couple raised racehorses for years. Now the farm’s airy barn is filled with curing garlic hanging from the rafters every summer.
The father and daughter team started the garlic farm on a whim after tasting local garlic from farmers markets. Both sisters have inherited their mother’s love of cooking, and Burnett is a passionate researcher who delved heavily into the world of garlic cultivars once he caught the bug. In 2017, the trio decided to give it a shot on their own, starting with 300 cloves from local stock.
”We were like, ‘Let’s just put a bunch of bulbs in and see what happens,’” Burnett said.
Burnett used existing farm equipment to build a planting machine. Every fall, the two sisters ride on the back and place the cloves in rows. After the long growing season, the family hand harvests every bulb in midsummer of the following year. Burnett and Wallace dug up around 4,000 bulbs this summer. But Burnett had since found an undercutter bar that loosens the dirt beneath and makes harvesting easier.
“We’re looking forward to that next year,” Burnett said with a laugh.
Burnett and his daughters are tapping into both the passion for local food that’s taken Loudoun by storm and Americans’ growing love affair with garlic. According to Penn State University, garlic consumption in the U.S. has quadrupled since 1980 and now stands at two pounds per person annually
“People are crazy about it, and they see a lot of health benefits,” Burnett said.
For Spencer and Wallace, the garlic company is a chance to reconnect with the gorgeous farm where they grew up and keep family ties strong. Wallace is a teacher in Alexandria, and Spencer recently moved from Leesburg to North Carolina with her young family. But both sisters are at the family farm regularly.
“It continued our attachment to the farm even though we’re not living here anymore,” Spencer said.
She remembers spending hours each day weeding the garlic field with two toddlers in tow during the summer of 2019, and finding peace and zen in the garlic field.
“It really makes you slow down,” she said.
And when Wallace’s husband proposed, he chose his wife’s happy place—the garlic field—as the backdrop.
On a recent late summer afternoon, three generations gathered at the farm to show off the sights and smells of the operation. This season, they’re planning to plant eight to 10 different varieties and are still learning the ins and outs of garlic.
“We’ve only skimmed the surface of all the different cultivars,” Wallace said.
Wallace loves the spicy Thai Purple variety, while Spencer, a University of Montana grad, is partial to the robust hard-necked Montana Zemo. Burnett likes the earthy and flavorful Rocambole varieties. But all three say there’s plenty of experimenting left to do. This season, Burnett is planning to test a new marbled variety with a shelf life of up to nine months.
The sisters are also still experimenting with sales and marketing plans for the products. Garlic has a much longer shelf life than other local produce but is still a seasonal product, and most varieties won’t last until the holidays. This summer, Burnett’s law firm bought much of the season’s crop and gave out Christmas in July garlic gift bags to community volunteers who helped with the local Ampersand Food Pantry.
The sisters have created a website and may expand sales next summer. They’re also looking into getting a license to eventually sell peeled and preserved products.
“We want to get there but we haven’t yet,” Spencer said.
For now, the Sisters Garlic team is gearing up for their fifth crop, with planting slated for early November. Garlic takes up to eight months to grow. Growers plant in late fall to allow the roots to take hold, followed by a dormant period during the winter. Then as soil temperatures rise in the spring, the plants see a period of intense growth. Nearly half of each bulb’s growth takes place in the last 30 days before harvest, Burnett said.
After harvest, the garlic cures in the barn for three to six weeks, with long stalks hanging from the rafters. The growers snip off the dried stems and gently clean the papery outer layer before putting the crop into dry storage.
Spencer has been a vegetarian since elementary school and said the flavors and versatility of artisanal garlic make it perfect for plant-based cuisine. It’s also packed with vitamins and minerals.
“It’s something I could really promote,” she said. “You can use it for everything.”
For more information about Sisters Garlic Co., go to sistersgarlicco.com. For fall updates and fun bulb popping videos, follow the farm on Instagram @sistersgarlic.