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Kansas City will see less of this City Market vendor and his elephant garlic

Mesh bags full of garlic cloves sit on a blue table. Behind it, a man in a red shirt fills more bags.
Savannah Hawley
KCUR 89.3
Craig Hansen brings hundreds of pounds of garlic to City Market in his pickup. He starts each day by bagging cloves of garlic before he gets too busy to restock the table.

Craig Hansen has been selling his elephant garlic at the City Market for nearly 15 years. But with his retirement and plenty of sales closer to his home in Webb City, he won't be coming to Kansas City as often.

Early in the morning, when the sun has barely risen over the City Market, Craig Hansen of Hillside Farms is already hard at work prepping and bagging his elephant garlic when customers start beelining to his stand.

For almost 15 years, he’s been driving the two and a half hours from Carthage, Missouri, to the market to sell his garlic, which can be two to three sizes larger than regular garlic.

“The best part about the market is engaging with people,” said Hansen. “People walk by my stand and if they kind of glance at my table, I'll invite them to smell the garlic. If I get them to smell it, about one out of three will buy it. About half my sales on a given day are people who I catch new and others are people that are coming back for more garlic.”

Beyond his salesmanship, the slight difference in taste between elephant garlic and its smaller cousins keeps his customers buying bags at a time. Elephant garlic is actually a member of the leek family, which makes it sweeter and less potent than regular garlic.

That taste is what first piqued Hansen’s interest more than 27 years ago. In 1995, he and his wife Kendra were living in Austin, Texas, while he worked on his master’s degree at the University of Texas. The city is also the headquarters of Whole Foods, which at the time had a farm-to-market tour to showcase the farmers whose goods were sold in stores. At one of the stops, Hansen convinced a garlic farmer to give him two precious cloves.

“I planted the two cloves and then the next summer I had two bulbs, each had six cloves,” he said. “I had 12 cloves and I planted all those in the fall of 1996 — it just multiplied from there.”

Many of his customers end up planting their own cloves like Hansen did. He’s heard of his garlic being grown as far as Russia and Jerusalem.

Even with decades of experience farming and selling the crop, often while wearing a garlic-themed shirt, Hansen doesn’t plant his identity in garlic farming. That, he said, comes from his relationships with God, his family, and his friends.

“I wouldn't say my life is dedicated to it,” he said. “Being retired, I have sufficient income without the garlic sales. I just do it because it's fun to do. I like being outside, it helps get me active, so I do it, um, more out of pleasure than I do out of need.”

A man weighs garlic on a scale, which is on a blue table.
Savannah Hawley
KCUR 89.3
Hansen sells three different-sized bags of garlic, with the largest being triple the size of the small bag.

Due to the high demand for his garlic, Hansen and his family limit how many bulbs they keep for themselves. Still, if they catch him at the right time, he’ll often give customers recipes and tips on how to use it at home.

“I have customers that buy more garlic than we eat in our house,” he said. “So I know there are people that use it quite heavily, yeah, in their diets.”

He doesn’t have the largest stand to sell from, but his pickup holds hundreds of pounds of garlic. And as the City Market’s primary seller of the bulb, plenty of people seek him out.

“I don't know why other people aren't growing it but they're not, so this is my niche,” Hansen said.

At one point, Hansen grew 13,000 bulbs of garlic — more than he could sell direct-to-consumer. But these days he’s planting less, and after this season he’s winding down his sales in Kansas City.

Hansen retired from the Children’s Division of the Missouri Department of Social Services last year and also sells at the Webb City Farmers Market closer to home.

“I can easily sell my entire stock in Webb City and never even come back to Kansas City,” he said. “But I like this market, I have a lot of loyal customers here — I’m not gonna ditch 'em.”

But the Labor Day weekend was his last at the market this year.

Though he’ll no longer rent a regular spot, he still plans to come up a few times next year with enough garlic in tow to hold everyone over.

Hansen doesn’t know exactly what weekends he’ll make the drive to Kansas City, but he’s promised to keep his loyal fans updated through the Hillside Farm Facebook page.

“I would be sad if I wasn't coming at all, so I'm coming enough to satisfy my appetite to be in Kansas City,” he said. “I think three or four times a year would be good.”

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the number of years Craig Hansen has been selling elephant garlic at the City Market.

When news breaks, it can be easy to rely on officials and people in power to get information fast. As KCUR’s general assignment and breaking news reporter, I want to bring you the human faces of the day’s biggest stories. Whether it’s a local shop owner or a worker on the picket line, I want to give you the stories of the real people who are driving change in the Kansas City area. Email me at savannahhawley@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @savannahhawley.
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