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Christopher family business thrives as a single commodity specialist

Christopher Ranch started in the 1950s with a number of different vegetable crops before switching its focus to garlic. Today the company grows peppers, sweet corn and several complementary items to its specialty, such as shallots and ginger.

But Bill Christopher, managing partner and son of the company’s founder, clearly believes diversification is overrated.

“Garlic is king,” he declared. “That’s what we do.”

“And we do it well,” added Patsy Ross, who has served as the company’s vice president of marketing for the past 20 years.

Recently, Mr. Christopher, his son Ken, and Ms. Ross sat down with The Produce News to discuss the past, present and future of Christopher Ranch.

Just as garlic is king at this operation, the Christopher name is akin to royalty in the California garlic business, which is the center of the garlic universe as far as Christopher Ranch is concerned.

Don Christopher Photo
Don Christopher speaking about Christopher Ranch’s fresh garlic in a 1978 photo.

One doesn’t get far in the conversation before hearing the virtues of California garlic espoused.

“This is the best garlic there is,” said Ken Christopher, repeating what was said often during the hour-long discussion.

“The taste profile is so much better than our competition,” added Ms. Ross.

Bill Christopher made no effort to hide who they are talking about when the competition moniker is used: It is China, not the other California grower-shippers.

“The garlic industry is unique,” Bill Christopher said, speaking specifically of California. “There are only four shippers, and we are all very friendly.”

In fact, the California industry has been working together for decades. As far back as 1978, the shippers funded their own voluntary organization to promote garlic. And in the last 15 years, that same group has been using its collective funds to battle Chinese importers on the regulatory front.

Bill Christopher admitted that Chinese garlic is top of mind and dominates every decision. The numbers tell the story. “California produces maybe 130 million pounds of garlic every year,” he said. “China exports 3 billion pounds.”

Through that prism it seems like a David-and-Goliath story. But it’s hard to cast Christopher Ranch in the David role as the firm has been synonymous with garlic in the United States for many decades.

The Christopher Ranch story dates back more than 100 years when Ole Christopher emigrated from Denmark to the United States in the latter part of the 19th century.

Mr. Christopher was a farmer who settled in California’s Santa Clara Valley, where he raised his family and grew various crops. His children, the second generation of Christophers, continued the farming tradition and started Christopher Bros. as primarily growers and shippers of prunes. That operation began in the 1920s and continued well into the late 1970s.

In the late 1970s, IBM purchased the land that was home to the prunes to build a huge California facility in what is now commonly referred to as Silicon Valley.

But 20 years before that, in the mid-1950s, Don Christopher and his brother Art moved south a bit and bought some farmland in Gilroy. It seems as if Don Christopher didn’t want to hang his hat in the prune business, but liked the idea of being a farmer.   Although the two brothers were partners in the operation, Art Christopher was never an active participant.

Don Christopher grew various crops that first year (1956) such as lima beans and sugar beets. By the second year, he expanded his offerings a bit, no doubt looking for a winner. Strawberries, cherry orchards and 10 acres of garlic were part of the mix. At that point, garlic already had a foothold in Gilroy as the typically warm weather was conducive to growing the product. While Christopher Ranch marketed some of its own items, it grew the garlic for another shipper those first few years.

“It wasn’t long before my dad discovered the money was in the packing and selling of garlic, not growing it,” Don Christopher said.

In 1960, Christopher Ranch partnered with a couple of other growers to pack and sell fresh garlic from a packingshed in San Jose, which is about 30 miles north of the Gilroy garlic fields. Two years later, Christopher Ranch built its first Gilroy packingshed, which is still standing as part of the company’s expansive complex today.

From that time on, Christopher Ranch continued to increase its garlic acreage and eventually became single-minded with the garlic crop being the commodity the firm stamped its name on, both figuratively and literally.

By the early 1970s, garlic was king at Christopher Ranch, and the company was starting to become the leader in the industry.

Ms. Ross said that Don Christopher’s ascension to that lofty spot as the leading garlic grower-shipper wasn’t easy, and he defied the predictions of the time.

“He remembers one garlic grower-competitor once wrote on a cocktail napkin something to the effect that Don Christopher would fail in the garlic business,” Ms. Ross recalled.

He did not.

The company thrived, and in the late 1970s it joined forces with other California growers in an attempt to increase the per-capita consumption of garlic from where it stood: about one pound per person.

It was around this time that Bill Christopher, the fourth generation of Christophers to farm in the area, decided he would make the garlic business and Christopher Ranch his life’s work.

“I had worked here during the summers and spent a lot of time out in the fields,” he said. “I was going to Stanford as an economics major, and by my junior year I knew I wanted to make this a career.”

His brother took a different route and became an attorney. Bill Christopher said that his father never pushed him into the business just as he has not pushed his own children. “You have to have a passion for the business,” Bill Christopher said. “It’s something you don’t turn off when you go home. My son [Ken] was driving the other day and he came up with an idea that he shared with me later. That’s how it’s got to be in this business.”

When Bill Christopher started full time, he worked in many aspects of the company and eventually took over the field and packing operations, while his father remained the chief executive officer and ran the sales department.

In the 1980s, Christopher Ranch took off as it developed new items such as fresh processed garlic that it sold in jars. There were many different items such as crushed, diced and pesto garlic that have survived the test of time, and several others that worked for a few years and then were abandoned if sales were not strong.

That appears to be the company’s mode of operation: It is not afraid to try new things, and it is not afraid to step back if they don’t work.

In the 1990s, peeled garlic became one of the company’s offerings and today accounts for a good chunk of sales.

Bill Christopher said that while the numbers aren’t exact, he estimated that today fresh garlic bulbs make up about 50 percent of sales, while peeled garlic is in the 45 percent range, and the other products (jars etc.) account for the remaining 5 percent.

Don and Bill Christopher worked together managing the company through the 1980s and 1990s and into the new century, but Bill has no illusions about who was boss. And he said that even after he was named managing partner in 2005, it was still a few more years before his father gave up the reins.

Today, Don Christopher is mostly retired but maintains an office at the facility and comes in regularly.

“Some people still go to him if they think I will say no,” Bill Christopher joked.

He acknowledged that his management style is much different than that of his father, but added, “We get to decisions differently, but we tend to come to the same conclusion.”

He explained that Don Christopher makes quick decisions, while he does more research and is a bit more deliberate. But he said that each style reflects the changing times as anything else.

“In my father’s day, he could just order people to do things,” Bill Christopher said. “We now live in a time when you have to ask. It’s very different.”

Bu the basic structure hasn’t changed at all. In his day, Don Christopher ruled the roost with an iron hand. Bill is no doubt gentler but he makes no bones about the fact that he is in charge.

“I’ve read a lot about family businesses, and [experts] recommend that you have an outside board to help guide the decisions. We don’t do that. My dad used to make the decisions, and now I make them. “

Although he has only been with the company as a full-time employer for a handful of months, Ken Christopher is expected to follow in his father’s footsteps.

“When I started, I figured I’d be sitting in this [managing partner] seat one day,” Bill Christopher said. “And I expect Ken will also.”

“I know I need to earn it,” said Ken Christopher. “And that is why I am so lucky to be able to learn from both my father and my grandfather. I have a lot to learn, and they have so much knowledge.” 

Like his father before him, Ken Christopher went to college not knowing for sure if he would follow his path into the family business. “I thought I would at some point but I didn’t know when,” he said.

Bill Christopher said that of his three sons, he thought Ken would be the one to come into the business. The other two have not chosen this route, and Mr. Christopher does not believe they ever will. Again, he said that the business takes passion, which cannot be manufactured.

Ken Christopher went to the University of San Diego for his undergraduate studies, the University of San Francisco for his masters degree and did some post-graduate work at New York University. International studies was his course of study, and he now is ready to meld his academic pursuits with the family business.

On the international front, he shares the company line that although China is the world’s largest producer of garlic, Christopher Ranch will never be a producer in that country. “And I agree completely, so we have at least two more generations [of family leadership] without going down that path.”

China has been a thorn in the side of U.S. producers since it began exporting large volume of garlic to the United States about 15 years ago. Because of the enormity of the Chinese crop, the U.S. market can become flooded with much lower-priced product at almost a moment’s notice, and China has been accused of flooding the market many times in the past decade or so.

In fact, U.S. producers, led by the coalition of California growers, have successfully argued their case before the U.S. Department of Commerce, and Chinese importers are faced with a large tariff.

However, there are ways to get around that tariff, and neither Bill nor Ken Christopher hide their feelings on the subject. They believe Chinese producers and their U.S. importers are skirting the spirit of the law.

Currently the situation is under control as a crop failure in China has caused the U.S. garlic market to rise dramatically in the past 18 months to very high levels. U.S. producers are doing very well at this point.

However, an oversupply of Chinese garlic always has to be in the equation, according to these Christopher Ranch executives.

Bill Christopher said that growing garlic is a very long process as the crop in the ground today will be harvested in 2012, which means that each time it plants a crop, the California industry has to take a leap of faith that the marketing conditions will be favorable a year down the road.

But as they make that projection, the Christopher Ranch decision-makers are certain of one thing: Their garlic is far superior to anything else on the market.

“California garlic is by far the best,” said Bill Christopher, “and we have no problem when retailers market it side by side with our competition [from other countries].”

Both men promise that Christopher Ranch will always remain a California firm and that they will never grow garlic in China. The company admits to importing from China, as well as from Argentina and Mexico, but only to fill the requests of its customers.

With much help from Christopher Ranch, garlic consumption in the United States is on the rise. Ms. Ross said that per-capita consumption today is at the three-pound-per-person mark and growing. Food shows, the influx of garlic-loving immigrants into the United States and the rise of the Mediterranean diet have all played important roles in that ascent.

But just as important, according to these garlic aficionados, has been the world-famous Gilroy Garlic Festival, which Don Christopher helped to found.

Today, Christopher Ranch remains the official garlic supplier of the festival, which attracts more than 100,000 visitors from all over the world each year and delivers publicity that just can’t be bought.

It is a symbiotic relationship. Christopher Ranch helped put Gilroy on the map and the Garlic Festival has put Christopher Ranch in the limelight for the past 33 years.