Small garlic farm hit by Okanogan flood

OROVILLE, Wash. — It doesn’t sound like much — a $10,000 to $25,000 loss — but it’s a fair chunk in the annual income of Noah and Heather Burnell.

They’re small growers of garlic, probably one of the most unusual crop losses in this spring’s Okanogan Valley flood. And at 3,500-feet and 3 miles from the Canadian border they’re also probably one of the highest elevation and most northern garlic growers in the Lower 48 states.

Rapid mountain snowmelt has caused the worst flooding of the Okanogan Valley, particularly between Oroville and Tonasket, since 1972. Damage to houses, structures, hay fields and orchards along the Okanogan River will reach into the millions of dollars.

Snowmelt caused ground water to rise, flooding the Burnell’s garlic field at Ellemeham Mountain, 10 miles west of Oroville between Palmer Lake and Nighthawk.

The Burnells haven’t seen anything like it in the 22 years they’ve owned land on the mountain.

“Last year springs were popping up in the middle of the county road and our roads and this year it’s even more. One of our fields was completely under water. We dug ditches to drain it,” said Noah Burnell, 44.

A lot of it was snowmelt on the mountain but there’s always been snowmelt so he suspects some larger change in underground water movement.

The field is about half an acre. Burnell figures he’s lost a majority of last fall’s planting of two of four varieties of garlic. He won’t know how much can be salvaged until July harvest. If the whole field is lost, it would be a third of his annual crop.

It’s a dryland operation, dependent on winter snow and rain.

“Most years we have our fingers crossed that we’ll have enough moisture,” he said.

They have no crop insurance and will try to buy seed from other growers if they can to keep supplying their customers.

Burnell was a carpenter before experimenting with garlic seven years ago. They were not sure it would survive harsh winters at 3,500 feet, but found out it does. Their production has expanded to 8,000 to 10,000 pounds of garlic seed on 1.5 acres on the mountain and at another field in the lowlands on the east shore of Lake Osoyoos east of Oroville.

“We make about $80,000 to $100,000 a year which is very good. We were looking for a crop we could grow as a family and pay the bills,” Burnell said.

It’s labor intensive and they do all the work themselves. Fall planting by hand, one mechanical weeding, a hand weeding and harvesting by hand.

Their crop is certified organic. Bulbs bigger than 2 inches in diameter they sell for seed under their Great Northern Garlic brand and bulbs smaller than that are sold as Okanogan Organic directly to local grocery stores and through a broker to Seattle grocery stores.

“The Okanogan Valley is the Napa Valley of garlic,” Burnell said, “because we have so many small, specialized growers and so many different varieties.”

There are probably 30 to 40 small growers and one of the nation’s largest garlic seed banks, Filaree Garlic Farm, in Omak, he said.

“Conditions here are hot, dry summers and very cold winters which is what garlic needs,” he said.

Gilroy, Calif., where Heather Burnell is from, is where most of the nation’s garlic is grown.

“We had some hail damage one year, but otherwise this is our first natural disaster,” Burnell said. “We’ve never had any winter loss because of the cold.”