GILROY, Calif. — There has been a resurgence of California garlic in the last ten years, and the 2018 California garlic crop will put an exclamation point on that trend.
At Christopher Ranch, California’s largest garlic supplier, executive vice president Ken Christopher said May 21 that the company will see production levels not seen in years.
“We are anticipating about 100 million pounds of garlic this year,” he said. “This is going to be the first time we are going to have that level of (production) in decades, so we are really excited about that.”
Harvest starts in early June.
Don Christopher started the company in 1956 with 10 acres of garlic. Don still comes in a couple of hours every day, his grandson Ken Christopher said. Ken’s father, Bill Christopher is the CEO.
Demand for organic garlic has been explosive and it is the fastest-growing business segment, Ken Christopher said.
The company harvested 5 million pounds of organic garlic last year and expect to harvest 10 million pounds of organic garlic in 2018, by far the biggest organic crop for Christopher Ranch.
Although the company was forced to import some Argentina organic garlic to meet demand in 2017-18, the company expects to market 100% California organic garlic in 2018-19, Christopher said.
“This will be the first year we will have a 100% California organic program,” he said.
In the 1980s, Christopher Ranch began offering value-added production and marketing, peeling and roasting the garlic and creating new sales.
Christopher said the decline in California garlic started in the late 1990s, when the Chinese started dumping big supplies of garlic in the U.S. market.
“We had to cut back from 100 to 90 to 80 million pounds and in 2008 we were around 45 million pounds of garlic, which is our historical low over the last two decades,” he said.
However, U.S. garlic consumers have shown an active preference for country of origin USA garlic and for California garlic in particular.
One of the company’s taglines is “Do you know where your garlic is from?” and Christopher said consumers have a growing appreciation of food security. The company also is proud that it supports well-paying jobs and gives back to the community through charitable efforts.
“We have really been able to claw our way back, so it is a nice success story and also timed exactly with the 40th anniversary of the (July 27-29) Gilroy Garlic Festival,” Christopher said.
Christopher Ranch grows two varieties of garlic, simply called early garlic and late garlic.
Fresh whole garlic represents about 45% of the company’s sales, with peeled garlic accounting for 45% and roasted garlic in jars accounting for the remainder.
Early garlic harvest begins in June and continues for a couple of weeks. Early garlic inventories will last for about five months.
Late garlic will begin harvest in July and represents about 80% of total garlic volume. Christopher said early garlic will typically size up a little larger, but also tends to have more staining because it is harvested closer to the time fields see rain.
Late garlic is more uniform in sizing than the early garlic and might come out with a little more of a creamy finish, he said. “All in all the varieties look fairly similar,” he said.
While most of the company’s garlic used to be grown in the Gilroy area, a disease called white rot hit area fields in the 1990s and made it impossible to grow in those fields. Although the company still has about 500 acres in the greater Gilroy area, most of the company’s 5,500 acres are in the Central San Joaquin Valley of near Fresno and Firebaugh, with fields also near Salinas and the northern bit of the San Joaquin Valley. Although new crop harvest will start around June 5 or so, Christopher said on May 21 the firm was still packing 2017 garlic from controlled atmosphere storage until new crop volume begins.
Fresh garlic is packed in field bins of 2,000 pounds. When garlic is packed, it is run across industrial heaters that warm the garlic to make bulbs easier to clean.
The company has a crew of about 50 people that clean the garlic bulbs, he said.
“Every bulb of garlic you find in the store has been touched by a human hand,” he said, noting there is currently no robotic system that can replicate what workers can do.
Garlic can be shipped in bulk 30-pound boxes, with the super colossal size representing 150 bulbs per carton. In small to large order, garlic sizes are giant, jumbo, extra jumbo, super jumbo, colossal and super colossal, Christopher said.
“We pack several dozen different (stock-keeping units) depending on size, configuration and pallet,” he said.
The company is fully staffed, but labor is a concern, Christopher said.
“On July 1, we are jumping to $15 per hour for our corporate minimum wage and in doing so we found we are at full employment,” he said. But big wage increases may not be sustainable in the future, and Christopher said the company is seeking out ways to use technology to help and augment its workforce and stabilize the cost per pound.
The company brings in H-2A labor for seasonal harvest help, Christopher said. Christopher Ranch has about 800 employees that work-year round. During harvest the workforce expands to about 1,500 workers.