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A nose for business sets garlic growing

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: February 27, 2013

  • Mark Botwright in fields near Bridport, in Dorset. He is organising the World Garlic Eating Contest, to be held in September at the George Inn, in nearby Chideock PICTURE: FRAN STOTHARD

  • Changing habits have driven Mark and Wendy's business. 'People used to worry about stinking of garlic, but they don't seem to worry about it now', he says. picture: fran stothard

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A farmer who switched from sheep farming to garlic growing is organising an event which is bound to cause a big stink – the first annual World Garlic Eating Competition.

What started off as a hobby in his garden for fun has turned into a major business for Mark Botwright, who owns South West Garlic Farm in Bridport, Dorset.

And now, Mark – whose ambition is to grow enough garlic to make Britain self-sufficient – is calling on fans of the stuff to enter the competition, held at his local pub, The George Inn, Chideock, in September.

"Apparently the record is 34 cloves in a minute," said Mark. "But we don't think a minute is long enough, so we're giving contestants five minutes.

"As they eat one clove, they're peeling the next one. I'll be surprised if they eat more than 50 to 60 cloves in five minutes. Raw garlic has a super-intense peppery heat, so it's a big challenge to eat that many raw cloves."

Mark – who declined to reveal his own personal best – is hoping to put British garlic on the map by encouraging international contestants: "We're looking for people locally, nationally, and globally to step forward and take up the challenge."

The venture began 15 years ago with an odd gift from wife Wendy. That one birthday clove inspired a project that has seen 300,000 bulbs planted at their farm this year, enough to supply the whole South West for a year.

Much of the garlic goes to restaurants, including Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage and Mark says that Britain's change in eating habits in recent years is behind the boom.

And, while many of the country's farmers are struggling with the elements, the frost and sub-zero temperatures are perfect for Mark's crop.

Switching from sheep to garlic was a massive upheaval – but Mark said he and Wendy had to do it: "We had 600 sheep on our farm in Hazelbury Bryan in north Dorset and were really struggling to make any money.

"Then Wendy gave me some garlic to grow for fun in the garden – it was just elephant garlic at that stage. The bulbs did really well and before we knew it, we had 2,000 bulbs. But we didn't sell any of it. We didn't even eat any of it ourselves. We just kept growing it. When we sold the farm and moved to Bridport about nine years ago, we brought the 2,000 bulbs with us. That grew to 5,000, then 30,000, then 75,000 and now 300,000."

With between six and ten cloves of garlic per bulb, that is a lot of garlic – and many of Mark's friends questioned if he was doing the right thing.

"A lot of farmers wouldn't consider making a major change because it is an upheaval and can be very costly. Machinery is produced in France and is incredibly expensive, so I just adapted machinery – such as the cabbage planter."

Mark and Wendy started marketing their garlic two-and-a-half years ago and now have a 13-acre growing site and they dry and prepare it for sale in polytunnels in their garden. A further 25 acres is lined up for use this autumn, and they hope to move it all to a new site towards Exeter – where the soil is ideal – within two years.

"We've become very European in our eating habits over the last ten years," said Mark. "We eat a lot of Mediterranean food and we love curries, which have garlic."

Garlic growers in Britain are a tiny band but Mark is confident that good times lie ahead: "My ambition is to supply all of the garlic needs of the UK. Most of the garlic you buy in supermarkets is imported from China."

As for the cold snap, Mark says it's perfect for his garlic: "We love frost. It splits the bulbs into cloves – otherwise, they grow like small onions. And the bulbs go dormant state so that when spring comes along, they go into turbo mode. Another couple of weeks like this would be perfect."

www.southwestgarlicfarm.co.uk

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