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California garlic harvest gets underway as Chinese imports begin to arrive

by Rand Green | June 16, 2011

The harvest of California early garlic, which had been delayed due to unseasonably cool weather by anywhere from a few days to two weeks, was underway as of mid-June, with the late garlic harvest still about a month off.

New-crop Chinese peeled garlic had also started to arrive in the United States by mid-June, with whole fresh Chinese garlic scheduled to begin arriving within a few weeks.

The California volume for 2011 is expected to be similar to last year, whereas the Chinese crop is believed to be up, possibly by around 30 percent. As a result, marketers are expecting lower prices than in 2010.

“We had a pretty cool spring, and the start of summer was cool,” Bill Christopher, president of Christopher Ranch LLC in Gilroy, CA, said June 14. The cool weather caused some delay, but “we are now in full harvest in the San Joaquin Valley, undercutting garlic and getting it out of the ground. We will be topping there in probably a week to 10 days, so we will have fresh-crop garlic there [available to ship] before the end of the month.”

There also has been some rain that “did a little bit of damage, but I don’t think it is going to be too bad,” Mr. Christopher said. The rain caused “a little bit of staining on some of the early garlic,” which is strictly a cosmetic problem. “There is no mold, no disease” or other problems.

The crops “look very good” in terms of yields, he said, “so there will be an abundant amount of California garlic this year.”

The late garlic “looks good” and should be ready for shipment toward the end of July, he said. Production should be “pretty close to the same as last year.”

Chinese producers have “already started shipping in some peeled garlic, and their fresh garlic should arrive here towards the end of July,” Mr. Christopher said. “My understanding is that they have good size and good quantities this year. They didn’t have any problem with their growing as they did last year.”

John Layous, a partner at The Garlic Co. in Bakersfield, CA, said June 13 that “it is probably not a pristine year” for California early garlic in terms of quality because of the late rains. But “I think it is a little premature to know how much damage it did.”

The Garlic Co. grows mainly late varieties, and “the late crop that we have looks like a nice crop,” he said. “The early is going to be probably starting the first or second week of July, and the late would be starting the first or second week of August.”

The company’s acreage has been “very similar for the past two or three years,” he said.

Statewide, Mr. Layous expected that the amount of garlic packed this year will probably be “very similar to last year or maybe less,” even though overall acreage may be up a little. “That is brought about by seed condition,” he said.

The seed-growing district in Oregon where most California growers usually get their seed had weather problems, resulting in a shortage of seed, so growers used less-desirable local seed, which could affect yields somewhat.

Prices have been “very high” for garlic over the last year, but “I think it is going to come off a bit,” Mr. Layous said. “We compete with the Chinese crop, which is rumored to be in better supply, so I am thinking the market is going to reflect that a little bit.”

Some customers “just want to buy California garlic” and others are “happy to buy Chinese garlic,” he said. “Then you’ve got the ones in the middle that flex back and forth, and I think that is what changes the market.”

“I’m brokering a lot of garlic out of Mexico right now, going to Australia” as well as to customers throughout the United States, David Grimes, proprietor of David E. Grimes Co. in Hollister, CA, said June 14. “Everything is behind a couple of weeks this year” due to weather.

Besides cool temperatures, “we’ve had some rainstorms that have hit the California area” and caused some problems with the crop. “You get some staining on the garlic.” The late garlic “should be fine,” he said, but the early garlic, which “we are doing right now” will show some staining “in different [producing] areas.” Garlic out of the Baja-Mexicali area of Mexico “is OK,” but in California, “there are going to be some good fields, and there are going to be some bad fields.” However, some growers may not put garlic from the problem fields on the fresh market but rather use that product for processing, Mr. Grimes said.

“We are in the transition time right now, transitioning into new-crop California garlic and out of old crop, whether it be Chinese or Argentine,” Jim Provost, managing partner in I Love Produce LLC in Kelton, PA, said June 14. “I think there is also still some old-crop California garlic around, but we are out.”

The quality of the new California Garlic that I Love Produce had received so far “is good, but the size is down a little from last year,” he said.

The company was still finishing “the last of the old-crop fresh” Chinese garlic and had begun to receive “new-crop peeled. There is 30 percent more garlic in China this year, so the market is beginning to fall,” he said. “Fresh garlic should be arriving in the United States in mid-July.”

The quality is “excellent this year in China,” he said. “They have a bigger yield, bigger sizes and better overall skin quality than last season.”

The industry has “created a two-tiered market with California on one level and China and other imports on the other level,” said Mr. Christopher. Even with the higher price of Chinese garlic last year, that price differential held, and “we still had a two-tiered system, which worked for us.” He expects that this is “something we will be able to carry on” through the 2011 season.

Demand seems to be holding strong for garlic, in spite of the economy, Mr. Christopher said. And restaurant business seems to be “picking up again, so more peeled garlic is being sold.”

People are “eating out more, which is good, because when people eat out, they eat more garlic, and we have plenty of that for them.”