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.
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