Gilroy, Where Has Your Garlic Gone?

Amid the hubbub at the Gilroy Garlic Festival, I stole a few moments for a sobering conversation on the state of garlic in this country. After all, the reason for my being in Gilroy in the first place was my recent discovery of Chinese garlic and its prominent figuring into American supermarket produce aisles.

I had the good fortune to meet Don Christopher, founder of Christopher Ranch, the largest U.S. garlic grower, and his son Bill, a managing partner of the business.

I shared my tale with the Christophers, and they shook their heads in resigned acknowledgement that Chinese garlic is taking a big bite out of the American garlic industry.

Now in its 50th year, Christopher Ranch started out with a modest 130 acres, expanding to a cap of 5,000 garlic-centric acres in the late 1980s. Their cash cow began to suffer with the onset of Chinese garlic exports in the early 1990s, at a price seriously undercutting the Americans.

To wit: A 30-pound box of Chinese garlic presently runs about $11.50, according to Bill Christopher, nearly half the price of a box of California garlic, which goes for around $18. The big supermarkets love the savings, says Christopher, but they don't pass on that savings to the consumer. It's simply a huge moneymaker.

Forty to 50 percent of the price of garlic is dedicated to labor costs, says Don Christopher; during harvesting, Christopher Ranch's work force increases more than threefold, from 300 to 1,000 employees. The concept of a free market economy is nonexistent in China, and as such, Chinese garlic growers have been selling their product below cost, without any consideration for labor.

In 1993, the California Fresh Garlic Producers Association was formed in response to the pricing-out phenomenon as well as illegally traded garlic, and pressured Congress to pass a trade act that would impose a 377 percent tariff on Chinese garlic. The idea sounded good, says Don Christopher, but when it came time to collect taxes from garlic offenders, businesses would mysteriously fold and reorganize under new names -- and continue reaping the garlicky profits.

As a result, Christopher Ranch has suffered, with a 30 percent decrease in revenues over the past five years. Overall, the industry has taken a beating over the same time period, with annual output decreasing from 100 million pounds to 60 million pounds. "You can't beat the Chinese," says Bill Christopher.

They maintain that Christopher Ranch is still in business because chefs prefer the flavor of California garlic to Chinese garlic, which is not as intense in flavor. As a result, they have shifted their customer focus on the food service industry. (They've also expanded their product line, to include shallots and roasted garlic.)

The regular consumer, however, is faced with a garlicky dilemma. Although Christopher Ranch garlic is sold in Walmart, Costco and Safeway stores (primarily west of Mississippi), there's nary a label or in-store signage indicating origin.

The moral of this story? There's a garlic sliver's chance of knowing where your bulb has grown, even for vigilant shoppers. The only recourse, it seems, is to buy locally, through farmer's markets and community-supported agriculture.

What's your take on this stinking situation? Share your thoughts in the comments area below.

By Kim ODonnel |  August 1, 2006; 8:36 AM ET Food Politics
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Maybe it's time to impose some tariffs on Chinese garlic to help preserve our California garlic growers.

Posted by: Andrew | August 1, 2006 10:09 AM

What about quality? For some reason, chinese garlic is always fresher. The chain stores buy a big box of garlic and keep it on the floor for weeks. Yuck!

Posted by: Jeremy | August 1, 2006 10:19 AM

How would you know that chinese is fresher? Garlic keeps a LOOOOOOng time anyway.

How can we buy from local growers and CSA's when they don't have garlic now. I'd need to buy a whole lot to get me through a year, and then it would probably sprout.

I thought most garlic in grocery stores was Mexican, anyway.

Posted by: dynagirl | August 1, 2006 10:43 AM

Dynagirl: Local growers and CSAs DO have garlic now -- tis the season. It's November when things get tricky. Yes, you're right about it sprouting, that is a dilemma. Indeed, Mexico is exporting its share of garlic to the U.S., as is Argentina, the Christophers tell me. But China is the leading exporter of garlic to the United States, to the tune of $50 million last year.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | August 1, 2006 11:03 AM

So, if we buy garlic now from local growers, what is the best way to store it? How long will it last?

Posted by: mdsailor | August 2, 2006 12:25 PM

I am all for US garlic--I think it tastes better. But the Christopher garlic I purchase at Costco will sprout within a week. The Chinese garlic stays fresh much longer. Both are stored in the same location. Go figure.

Posted by: RT | August 2, 2006 5:10 PM

I am a little confused about two sentences in the article, as they seem to contradict each other. The author wrote, "
The concept of a free market economy is nonexistent in China, and as such, Chinese garlic growers have been selling their product below cost, without any consideration for labor", and then proceeded to write in the next paragraph, " The idea sounded good, says Don Christopher, but when it came time to collect taxes from garlic offenders, businesses would mysteriously fold and reorganize under new names -- and continue reaping the garlicky profits." It is not clear whether Don Christopher said this or whether she was paraphrasing. However, only one of these statements is accurate, the Chinese cannot be selling their products below cost and also reap profits at the same time.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 3, 2006 2:19 PM

I work for the Department of Commerce and worked on Chinese garlic tariffs. We do have tariffs on Chinese garlic. For companies who do not participate in antidumping proceedings, it is 376.76%. Those companies who choose to participate, give us full access to their accounting and business documents and agree to allow us to come and do on-site verifications of their information, may earn a lower tariff rate (or no tariff at all) by proving that they are not selling under cost. I visited many garlic farms in China. They do have far lower costs, but because China is considered a non-market economy, the Department doesn't use the company's actual costs. We find the cost of the same item in a similar market economy (usually India) calculate their cost of production based on those values.

There are plenty of companies that fold after tariffs are assessed, but to make a complicated matter more simple, the companies have to provide Customs and Border Protection with deposits on those tariffs or bonds guaranteeing payment. So the government gets their money. And because of the Byrd Bill, the domestic producers receive the money collected on tariffs. There are plenty of shady operations, but there are many legitimate operations as well.

More information than necessary, but hopefully it clarifies the situation a little.

Posted by: DC | August 3, 2006 4:46 PM

I think we should support all our local growers in Gilroy and others in the U.S. There should be a tariff on Chinese garlic they sell their garlic for whatever the Chinese government tells them to. We need the tariff to keep everyone honest, it's not the Chinese growers who make the extra money. We have got to KNOW WHERE THE GARLIC IS COMING FROM to make an imformed chose.

Posted by: Nancy | August 22, 2006 8:31 PM

Regarding your interview with the Christophers, it appears they failed to mention that they are importers of Chinese garlic. I just bought a bag of three heads labeled "Gilroy's Finest, Christopher Ranch, Family Owned Since 1956" on one side, and "3 PCS Fresh garlic, Product of China, Distributed by Christopher Ranch, Gilroy, CA 95020, U.S.A." on the other side.

Posted by: Lyle | August 25, 2006 10:40 AM

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