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The year 2009 has been "a historic year in the garlic industry" with a demand-exceeds-supply situation that has pushed prices for both domestic and imported product to higher levels than anyone has seen in a long time, according to Jim Provost, president of I Love Produce, a grower, importer and marketer of fresh garlic, ginger and specialty produce based in West Grove, PA.

The price jump is largely a consequence of a 50 percent reduction in garlic plantings in China, a factor that has also given a boost to California's market share, Mr. Provost told The Produce News Dec. 17.

"Heading into the next new-crop garlic, which is out of the Southern Hemisphere, buyers all over the world have been flocking to Argentina to try to secure a supply in this tight supply market," he said. However, Argentina also has a reduced crop for the coming season. As a result, he thinks it likely that "in the next 30 to 45 days, we are going to see a garlic market in the United States of $50 or better" for 30-pound bulk cartons of whole fresh garlic.

Garlic prices were as high as $55 in Boston as of Jan. 6 and had been so "for about three weeks," according to Anthony Sharrino, president of Eaton & Eustis Co. But "the undertone tells me" that prices have probably peaked, he said.

"On Argentine, right now, we are seeing from $50 to $60, depending on size," said Sal Vacca, president of A.J. Trucco Inc. in New York City. That is "high for Argentine garlic," and that is for red garlic. "We didn't get any white yet. White could be higher because the demand is always larger for white garlic than for red."

Prices for California garlic were in the vicinity of $50 for the largest sizes in early January, and "it will be $50 to $55 by the end of the month," predicted Bill Christopher, a partner in Christopher Ranch LLC in Gilroy, CA.

"I'm sure it has happened before," said Mr. Provost of the high garlic prices, "but it has been over 10 years since something like that has happened."

The demand will "continue to be strong into the Mexican season," Mr. Provost said, and "I don't expect that supply, which isn't usually a major factor, to alleviate the situation greatly." Even after California and China start with their new crops "in the spring of 2010, the garlic will continue to be short," although "maybe not quite as short as it has been this year," he said.

In garlic cultivation, it generally takes two years to bring about a significant increase in production because of the need "to create the seed to start replenishing the supply back to where it was," he said. "For that reason, there will be more garlic" beginning in spring 2010, "but not enough to flood the market or bring the prices down to where they were two years ago." He expects that "for the foreseeable future, the garlic market will remain strong."

At I Love Garlic, "we've made several trips [to Argentina] to secure our supply," Mr. Provost said. He expects to receive the first arrivals from Argentina sometime between Jan. 18 and Jan. 31. Argentina will probably finish shipping early this year because of the reduced crop size, he said, "but we want our customers to know that both in the conventional and organic, we will have supplies to cover ourselves until the new-crop California [garlic] starts."

The quality of the Argentine garlic is excellent with "good size and color," he said. "The good news is that if you are paying a lot of money for the garlic, you are at least going to get a nice box of garlic."

Joe Lane, a partner in The Garlic Co. in Bakersfield, CA, told The Produce News Jan. 6 that he expects to see some increase in California garlic production for the coming season, but growers will not be able to respond quickly to short supplies by plating significantly more acreage. "The way garlic is grown, it is difficult to make a big change in what your plans are, because you have to plan your crop two years in advance," he said.

A seed crop must be grown one year to use for planting the production crop for the next year.

By the time California can "make a big adjustment" in acreage, "China probably will be doing the same thing," he said.

Mr. Lane expects to see "pretty decent markets" continuing for garlic throughout 2010 and the first half of 2011.

"I don't see a big change for our plantings for 2010 or 2011," said Mr. Christopher of Christopher Ranch. "Right now we are experiencing high prices" following the worst year in the past 25 years, "so it is nice to have this year to kind of make up for what we lost." Looking ahead, "we just like to stay relatively stable," he said. "We are not trying to increase too much, because we don't know what is going to happen in China."

Christopher Ranch was continuing to ship California garlic from the 2009 harvest and expected to do so until the new 2010 crop comes in around mid- summer. In addition, "we are bringing in a little bit" of Argentine garlic, he said.