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By all accounts, 2009 is going to be a good year for the nation's garlic. "Let the fun begin," said William Christopher, partner at Christopher Ranch LLC in Gilroy, CA.

Today, garlic consumption in the United States stands at a rate of three pounds per person. Looking at historic trends, the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations said, "U.S. garlic use has soared, hitting a record-high 3.3 pounds per person in 1999, three times the level in 1989. Despite impressive growth for vegetables such as broccoli, bell peppers and carrots, no other vegetable has experience stronger growth in demand over the past 10 years."

The Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture provided some insight into the basis of the trend. "The growth in per capita spice consumption reflects a trend toward the use of spices to compensate for less salt and lower fat levels in foods, and heightened popularity of ethnic foods from Asia, Mediterranean countries and Latin America."

The United States is one of the larger global suppliers of garlic, ranking among the top five producing countries. Figures released by the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service this past February placed the value of production of the 2008 crop at approximately $187 million for fresh and process markets, an increase of approximately 10 percent from 2007. During 2008, the price per hundredweight was noted at $43.60, a 6 percent increase from 2007.

California dominates garlic production. According to NASS, 23,200 acres were planted in garlic in 2008 in the Golden State, and all but 200 acres were harvested. The yield was 170 hundredweight per acre, and overall production was approximately 4 million hundredweight. The overall value of production for California garlic was approximately $177 million. The price per hundredweight for the state's garlic was recorded at $45.20.

NASS also provided figures on garlic production for the states of Oregon and Nevada, both of which are also garlic seed producers. According to NASS, Oregon planted and harvested 1,800 acres of garlic for all purposes. Yield was 155 hundredweight per acre, and overall production was 276,000 hundredweight. The price per hundredweight was $30, with a value of production of approximately $8.3 million.

Nevada planted and harvested 640 acres for all purposes. The yield was 150 hundredweight per acre, and production was 97,000 hundredweight. The price per hundredweight was $19, with a value of production of approximately $2 million.

When asked about the California coming crop, Mr. Christopher said, "It's been a strange growing season. But I think we'll be OK. The crop looks good."

Production acreage is located in California's Santa Clara Valley and is spread out through the valley to minimize weather effects. The harvest is ramping up now and will continue through August. Early and late varieties are grown, and sizing is expected to be comparable to 2008. Overall volume will be down slightly because growers cut back on production acreage. "Next year, we will be right on target with acreage," he said.

Christopher Ranch began its business with bulk conventional garlic sales 52 years ago. Today, the product line has expanded to chopped and crushed garlic, whole peeled garlic cloves, elephant garlic, roasted garlic, shallots, pearl onions, boiler onions, Cipolline onions, roaster chopped ginger, pesto and sun-dried tomatoes.

Christopher Ranch is the only commercial grower of heirloom garlic from seed used by the Christopher family for more than a half-century. According to the company's web site, this strain provides more consistent, lasting flavor and stays fresh and pungent for up to seven weeks after arrival.

In addition to domestic markets, Christopher Ranch exports to Canada, Mexico, Japan and Australia. In all, the company markets more than 60 million pounds of fresh garlic annually in a variety of consumer and commercial garlic sizes. Organic garlic accounts for 10 percent of this volume. Garlic bulbs account for 50 percent of retail sales. Christopher Ranch's sales of fresh bulbs are likely to increase as consumers return to their kitchens. Since people are not dining out as frequently due to the economic downturn, Mr. Christopher expects sales of peeled garlic to be down somewhat in 2009.

Despite economic conditions, the foodservice sector is important. "We are working directly with chefs to get them to understand the difference with California garlic," he stated, adding that flavorful California garlic sells itself when chefs perform side-by-side taste tests.

"We've been here 52 years," Mr. Christopher told The Produce News. "We'll continue to be here through the tough times and the good times."

Patsy Ross, Christopher Ranch marketing representative, said that retail promotions are individualized to meet customer needs. "Every retail partner we work with has a different style," she said.

"Bigger, better displays have proven to increase garlic sales," she said of one technique. Demonstrations, use of rack systems in garlic centers and use of open display boxes have been successfully used in produce departments. "We believe merchandising garlic with colorful items [such as avocados or tomatoes] is a perfect way to merchandise garlic," she added.

John Duffus, sales director for The Garlic Co. in Bakersfield, CA, said that early garlic was curing in the fields during mid-June, and clipping will start toward the end of the month. Water had been cut to late-crop garlic during the middle of June. "It looks like we're going to have an average crop," he told The Produce News. "Sizing is average and will meet customer demand. We're feeling very confident we're getting what we want."

The company was one of the early ones to commercialize peeled garlic for retail, foodservice and industrial markets. Today, The Garlic Co. markets more than 25 million pounds of garlic annually to global markets. The company works with 20 major garlic growers in California and has also partnered with a grower in Baja, CA. Organic garlic production is driven by customer demand, and Mr. Duffus said that 5 percent of the garlic sold is organic at this time.

The Garlic Co. has a 35-acre production site in Bakersfield with space allocated for state-of-the-art peeling and processing lines, controlled- atmosphere storage and a quality-control center and lab.

The Garlic Co. markets 60 percent of its product to foodservice, with retail and industrial customers taking up the balance. Mr. Duffus said that the economic downturn has not affected industrial consumption but has depressed some sales to foodservice. Consumers, he noted, began to shy away from restaurants last fall, and the trend continued into the first part of 2009. But restaurant patronage began to pick up during the second quarter of the year. "It corresponds to what you read in the newspapers," he said of the dynamics.

"On the retail side, that business has held its own," Mr. Duffus went on to say. "Garlic is a small ingredient in overall [retail] purchases. A little bit of garlic goes a long way. [Consumers] get a lot of flavor for the dollar they spend."

The key difference between foodservice and retail with regard to consumer patterns involves choice. "People have to eat," Mr. Duffus stated. "But people have a choice on the restaurant side. People can go to mid-level restaurants."

The garlic category continues to show growth, and observations by Mr. Duffus confirm Food & Agriculture Organization findings. "[Growth is] driven by two factors," he said. First, people want to excite their taste buds with diverse foods in which garlic is an essential ingredient. Examples of such cuisine are Asian, Italian and Latin foods. Second, he said that people are increasingly interested in the health benefits of garlic consumption. "There's plenty of literature available on healthful eating," Mr. Duffus said.

Garlic contains vitamin B, vitamin C, potassium, phosphorous, selenium, copper, iron, amino acids and a number of sulfur compounds. Research indicates that garlic is rich in flavonoids, has anti-cancer properties, helps maintain brain health, shrinks tumors and reduces hypertension.

And then there is the passion factor. Consumers, he said, have strong opinions about garlic - one way or the other. "People who love garlic really love it," he chuckled.

In addition to whole-bulb, fresh-peeled garlic, garlic bits, processed garlic and specialty products, The Garlic Co. introduced its new "VakPak" ready-to- tear garlic strip earlier this year. Each strip contains three individually sealed portions of peeled garlic. "We think it's an ideal product for the retail market," Mr. Duffus said.

Maurice A. Auerbach Inc., a third-generation family-owned company located in South Hackensack, NJ, is one of the larger distributors of garlic and specialty products in the Northeast. Product distributed under the "Auerpak" brand includes conventional and organic bulk garlic, peeled garlic, garlic braids and elephant garlic. Auerbach procures and packs garlic at its centrally located, state-of-the-art warehouse, providing customers with same-day or overnight delivery from Maine to Virginia.

Marketing Manager Bruce Klein said that the company is sourcing garlic from Baja. Movement for California garlic begins in July. During the winter months, Auerbach distributes Argentine garlic.

Asked about marketplace trends, Mr. Klein said that consumers are becoming savvier about their purchases and want to know where the commodities they purchase are grown and what kinds of farming practices are used. As a result, country-of-origin labeling has become an important consideration. "Consumers are looking for countries they want to deal with," he told The Produce News.