Quality, flavor keeping California garlic competitive

True or false? •Gilroy, Calif. is the “Garlic Capital of the World?” •California produces 99 percent of U.S. garlic? •Garlic is grown in Gilroy?

Answers: true, true, and false (almost).

Bill Christopher is often asked by wayward garlic aficionados, who wander into his family's sprawling processing facilities looking for non-existent tours, if the trees surrounding the plant are garlic trees.

The fourth generation partner in the largest garlic production operation in the U.S., Christopher Ranch at Gilroy, politely tells them, no, there are no tours and those aren't garlic trees. He explains that garlic is a bulb crop.

He could almost tell them there is no garlic grown in the Garlic Capital of the World, where 125,000 people gather each July to celebrate nature's most pungent vegetable.

“There is one garlic grower left in Gilroy — he has probably 30 acres in the corner of a vegetable field,” says Christopher.

For the past 25 years, Huron, Five Points, and Firebaugh could lay claim as U.S. garlic-growing capitals, ever since housing, a shortage of land, and devastating crop diseases drove garlic away from Gilroy and over the Coastal Range to the San Joaquin Valley, where it is a staple in the crop rotation of many producers.

There are about 25,000 acres of garlic in the valley, down from a high of 40,000 in 1999. Most of it is for dehydrated garlic, with about 8,000 acres for fresh or peeled. Most of the acreage is contracted by Christopher, which markets more than 60 million pounds of fresh garlic each year.

The U.S. consumes about 300 million pounds of fresh or peeled garlic annually, and consumption is growing as garlic moves from a primary ingredient in many ethnic dishes to a mainstay in American kitchens and restaurants.

The growing consumption would seemingly paint a bright picture for California garlic production, but the drop in acreage gives a clue otherwise.

The reason: China.

It's hard to discuss any aspect of agriculture or American commerce without bringing up China, the most populous nation in the world, with more than 1.3 billion people and one of the most robust economies, with an 11 percent annual economic growth rate.

China makes American business either salivate or cringe — it's a huge market for U.S products, or a nemesis of staggering proportions that can literally flood the world with everything from sneakers to garlic.

For Christopher Ranch and California garlic growers, China is a nemesis.

A few years ago, China overnight flooded the U.S. with fresh and dehydrated garlic, and many SJV growers were expecting the crop to disappear.

Christopher says China went from a measly 50,000 pounds of garlic a decade ago to 2 million to 3 million pounds last year, and for the first time more fresh garlic was imported into the U.S. than was produced in California.

“For years, China didn't have the quality to import into the U.S., and their bulbs were very small. What happened was, a group of U.S. people went over there and showed them how to grow garlic,” says Christopher, who has been to China to see firsthand what's happening there.

Christopher Ranch, which also contracts for production of bell peppers, shallots, and ginger, isn't involved in the dehydrated garlic business. U.S. dehydrated garlic producers have challenged the influx of Chinese product into the U.S., particularly calling attention to the safety issue. They contend much of the garlic exported to the U.S. is dehydrated unsafely and contains high levels of lead.

“I've seen their plants,” says Christopher. “Many of them are very modern, but the small farmers also bring dehydrated garlic in from the countryside to mix with product from the modern plants.”

The Chinese are shipping fresh garlic into the U.S. at a cost of $12 to $16 per 30-pound box. It costs U.S. growers and packers $25 to $30 per 30-pound box.

China grows two-thirds of the world's garlic, mostly in small plots. Its fresh garlic is not as flavorful as California garlic, which is keeping California garlic in the marketplace against the cheap imports.

“Fortunately, the food service industry and the big retailers are sticking with California garlic because of the flavor and safety factor,” Christopher says. “They're willing to pay more for those two things.

Patsy Ross, a marketing expert with Christopher Ranch, says, “We've lost the low end of the market to the Chinese, but we're doing well in the high end and are cultivating that.”

Garlic is sold packaged or bulk; when packaged, it must carry a country of origin label.

“But, when it's sold in bulk, it doesn't have to the label,” Ross says. “The majority of consumers automatically assume that the garlic they buy in the produce department is from California — it may not be. We're working with the California Grown program to get the word out to consumers to ask for California garlic.”

She says West Coast shoppers are willing to pay the extra 5 cents to 10 cents for California garlic. “Unfortunately, that isn't the case on the East Coast, where shoppers are more price-conscious, even though it takes more imported garlic to flavor food than domestically-grown garlic.”

It's easy to tell California-grown fresh garlic from imported. Domestically-grown garlic still has roots on the bottom of the bulb, while imported garlic is cleanly-shaven of most, if not all, roots.

California-grown garlic is heavier because it is more dense in soluble plant solids, with lower water content, a key to a high Brix score. It has a richer, more complex flavor than imported garlic.

This quality differentiation is one reason Christopher believes garlic will remain a viable crop for SJV producers.

“One can still make money growing garlic in the San Joaquin Valley. But it's harder for us to get growers when processing tomatoes are $63 per ton, as they were this year, versus $50 per ton last year.” About 75 percent of his company's producers are long-time contract growers.

Garlic is a long-season crop, planted in September and harvested in July. Christopher provides certified seed to growers, consults on growing practices, and directs the hand harvest, using 2,000 to 3,000 workers.

“Growers like garlic because, after it's harvested, the ground is dry and can be worked a lot deeper than, say, after a lettuce crop, where the ground is wet after harvest.”

The biggest garlic growing challenge is white rot, which can be devastating; it's one reason fields are rotated out of garlic for four or five years.

“Once white rot is in the soil, it's there forever and the ground is no longer good for garlic,” Christopher says.

The industry has created a commission to fund research on white rot in both garlic and onions.

There is still good garlic ground in the valley, Christopher says, although he admits to concern about a shrinking land base as more permanent crops like almonds, grapes, and pistachios take row crop ground.

“We're in the garlic business to stay, despite what China is doing. We'll do whatever it takes to keep garlic as a viable crop for San Joaquin growers.”

Politically, Christopher has banded together with other specialty crop growers to get the federal government to enforce anti-dumping laws and to prevent Chinese garlic from avoiding high tariffs by being shipped to Vietnam and then to the U.S.

He says China is evading trade rules by allowing new garlic shippers to post a bond against any fines for dumping garlic into the U.S. below the cost of production. Established Chinese shippers must post a cash deposit against any dumping violations, but the new companies simply go out of business as soon as they are fined, and the bond is no longer valid.

“They just create another company and post another bond,” Christopher says, noting that more than $40 million in fines has not been collected.

“The Chinese have cost us a lot of business, but we're hanging in with new marketing approaches.” His company once processed 90 million pounds of fresh garlic annually — now, it's slightly more than 60 million pounds.

The Christopher family began farming in California in the 1880s, when Ole Christopher emigrated from Denmark to the Santa Clara Valley.

Don Christopher, a third generation California farmer, founded the family garlic company in 1956 with 10 acres. Christopher Ranch is one of the founders of the now-famous Gilroy Garlic Festival. Bill is Don's son.

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