By Ben Olson
It’s safe to say that most everyone knows it when Ben and Claire Ronniger’s magic garlic bus rolls through town. Eight tons of garlic crammed into a 40-foot bus does tend to potpourri the air.
The Ronnigers have made their annual trek from Mexico back to the family farm north of Bonners Ferry — selling some of the best garlic grown in the world all along the way — for the past 16 years.
Ben said when he bought a piece of his Uncle Dave’s farm 16 years ago, on land that he’d been farming for 10 years before that, he saw garlic as the prime crop to grow and sell.
“I saw it as my means to get out in the winter,” Ben told the Reader. “You could put a crop in in the fall and it takes care of itself until late spring. I was stoked on that crop and it provided a good price. I wanted something fun to grow that people were into, so I chose garlic.”
Ben said in the off season he was able to visit family, go hiking and camping, and eventually began taking trips south across the border while North Idahoans were shoveling snow and scraping windshields.
Ben said he began frequenting Baja California in winter, and eventually connected with a growing partner, starting a garlic partnership that flourishes to this day.
“I had a friend who went down there and brought back these beautiful garlic braids,” Ben said. “He told me I should check these out, so the next year I went and sought out a farmer and said, ‘Do you want to grow some more garlic?’ We figured out a way to do that, got more ground, more land for him and helped finance him and got things going. We’ve been partners ever since, and this is year 17 now.”
The Mexican farmers Kompi and Lupe Meza Villa Vicencio plant their garlic in early October — same as the Ronnigers do at their farm 3,000 miles north. The Ronnigers then make their annual journey south in an empty 1992 International 40-foot bus, sometimes spending months in the Baja harvesting, cleaning and braiding garlic with Kompi and Lupe. Then, they start the slow migration north, stopping to sell their crop until arriving back home to North Idaho.
As one might imagine, harvesting garlic at the Baja California location is a tough endeavor.
“It takes about two weeks and we do it all by hand,” Ben said. “It’s brutal and we’ve usually got about five or six of us in the field. Fifteen people is the most we’ve ever had. The field we harvest is exactly one hectare, or about 2.2 acres.”
The field usually yields about eight or nine tons of ajo morado, or “purple garlic,” coveted by foodies and connoisseurs for its plump bulbs holding clusters of purplish cloves with a distinctive flavor that is less sharp and has an almost citrusy complexity. Food and Beverage Magazine called the ajo morado variety “the best garlic in the world.”
After harvest, the bulbs are then laid out in the sun on a south-facing slope to cure.
“You don’t want the bulbs to get burned by the sun, because they’ll literally cook,” Ben said. “We cover the bulbs from one row starting at the top of a hill, then we’ll lay a big row of garlic out and use the stalks to cover the bulb of the layer before.”
With zero chance of rain, the sun and air dries the garlic for about a week to 10 days before cleaning.
“Cleaning means we basically rub the paper off, pull the roots off and get it looking pretty and graded into sizes for braiding,” Ben explained. “We’ll have big piles of garlic graded out into different sizes and we’ll take those and cover them with a tarp, sprinkling the stalks with a little bit of water, and the next morning they’re more pliable and ready to braid.”
Braiding is an ancient Mediterranean style of preserving garlic.
“Garlic is a living plant, so if you cut it it’s going to want to start growing quicker,” Ben said. “These guys have been growing garlic in this valley for generations. It was brought here by missionaries from Spain in the 1700s.”
Braids come in different sizes and styles, usually containing 10, 15 and 25 bulbs. Then there are bouquets, resembling a flower bouquet, which is how they utilize small garlic tied into a spiral.
The trek north
After harvesting, cleaning and braiding the garlic, the Ronnigers say farewell to Kompi and Lupe, stuff their bus full of garlic and head north, selling to health food stores, independent co-ops and organic food suppliers en route.
“We only deal with small, independent grocers,” Ben said. “We don’t sell to corporations. Only to people selling organic stuff.”
That’s an integral part of the business to the Ronnigers, since they believe strongly in independent grocers and organic farming.
After unloading a large amount in San Diego and Orange counties in California, the Ronnigers head east to the Rocky Mountains for another big selling point, then swing north toward home.
“For 17 years I’ve built up this route,” Ben said. “We have a lot of friends along the way or we stay at great camping spots. But the trip is centered around selling to these health food stores. Some of them are starting to get bought up by Whole Foods, so it’s getting harder and harder every year.”
Closer to home, after five weeks of selling garlic across the West, the Ronnigers arrive to sell their garlic to local outlets, such as Pilgrim’s Market in Coeur d’Alene, the Moscow Food Co-op and Winter Ridge in Sandpoint. They also maintain a vendor booth at the Sandpoint Farmers’ Market every Saturday. Chances are, if you’ve bought fragrant garlic with a purplish hue, it came from Ben and Claire Ronniger’s hard work.
Aside from their direct sales, the Ronnigers operate a website called allicinsranch.com, named after allicin, the chemical in garlic responsible for its health benefits. Those interested in ordering garlic directly can do so at the website.
It would take a separate article to list all of garlic’s health benefits, which includes everything from boosting your immune system to reducing high blood pressure and serving as an antibiotic. Aside from that, it is an essential item in anyone’s kitchen.
Maintaining a tradition
After streamlining the routine each year, the Ronnigers have kept true to their roots, only making minor changes from time to time.
“We’ve tricked out the bus over the years and I’ve been taking more and more stuff out of it to make more room for garlic,” Ben said. “I mounted a seat next to mine for Claire when we got married. Then we had our daughter, Isabell, and mounted another seat for her. Apart from that, we just have a kitchen sink and stove and the rest of the bus is for the garlic. When we’re fully loaded, it takes up the bus from the driver’s seat all the way to the back door, about four or five feet deep. We can’t smell it after two days, but everyone always says they can smell us coming.”
Now back home, the Ronnigers are busy farming and maintaining their online sales. They mentioned they’d like to hire a “jack-of-all-trades” type person who can help with office work, field work, deliveries and anything else that might pop up.
The Ronnigers are thankful for their annual garlic migration, giving them a chance to step away from the farm every winter to spend time with their Mexican growing partners and see all the familiar faces along the way.
“This is a tradition their family has passed down for generations and they want to keep it alive just like we do,” Ben said. “They’re such an amazing family. We love them so much.”
To learn more about the Ronnigers’ garlic business, or to order some of the ajo morado garlic for your own kitchen, visit allicinsranch.com.
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