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Good production, quality and sizes seen on California garlic as harvest kicks off

Harvest of the 2013 California garlic crop both in the San Joaquin Valley and in the Gilroy area were just getting under way in early July, but strong demand was paving the way for an optimistic outlook for the season.

"So far, the crop looks very good," said Bill Christopher, president of Christopher Ranch LLC in Gilroy. "Last year, yields were down a little bit. This year, yields are going to be average to good," and the size of the garlic is also good, "so there will be plenty of fresh California garlic for the market this coming year."

Currently "we are topping the early garlic in the San Joaquin Valley" and also in the Gilroy area, and "we are pulling late garlic in the San Joaquin Valley, so the harvest is in full swing," he said.

Industrywide, garlic acreage in California may be up about 5 percent overall, Christopher said. The increase might have been higher than that, because the strong demand and good market prices of the past couple of years could induce growers to increase plantings.

But "because of the water problems in the [San Joaquin] Valley and the problems with seed the year before, people aren't able to increase any more than that, and actually that is probably a good thing. By going up 5 percent, we should be able to satisfy the needs here."

Water availability will continue to be a problem this year and is expected more of a problem next year. Labor shortages are also a concern, although "so far this year, we have had enough labor," Christopher said. But labor costs are up. Health care reform has also brought added costs. All of those and other factors will continue to make garlic "more expensive to grow."

Market prices this year could be affected by an increase in the supply of Chinese garlic. "There will be plenty of Chinese garlic available," Christopher said. But "we are hoping that consumers here in the United States [who have] made the switch to California garlic are going to stay that way" and continue to buy California garlic "because of the flavor profile" and because of the food-safety audits and traceability programs that the foreign-produced garlic may not have.

"We think prices should remain pretty steady because all costs are up," he said. So even with the increased volume, Christopher doesn't expect much of a drop in the market prices for California garlic.

"Overall, I've heard it is going to be a pretty good year" for California garlic, said Louis Hymel, director of purchasing for Spice World Inc. in Orlando, FL, which has garlic growing and packing operations in California.

As for the harvest of company's own product, "we're just walking the fields now," Hymel said July 5. "It is a little too soon to tell exact numbers" until it is in the packinghouse and "we start grading it, but so far, things are looking pretty good. Quality is looking really nice this year."

Spice World's acreage is about the same as last year, he said.

"What is going to make this year a little interesting is China has a very big crop of garlic -- 20 to 30 percent more than last year, and it looks like China may have some very low-priced garlic coming in to the United States this year," Hymel said.

Due to the "lack of size and lack of quality" of the Chinese product over the past couple of years, "more people have shown a stronger interest" in California garlic, Hymel said. This year, "the biggest threat [to California garlic] is going to be the prices out of China, although it is a little too soon to tell what long-term effect that might have."

Spice World is "a California grower first and foremost," but it also imports garlic from other areas of the world, including Argentina, Chile, Mexico and China.

"Our key is to offer our customers whatever they want," Hymel said. "We do a good job on whatever we offer them and give [them] the quality assurance they need buying from a domestic producer."

"From what I am seeing, the local crop looks very nice," said David Grimes, proprietor of the David E. Grimes Co. in Hollister, CA. However, some of the late garlic may be "kind of a mixed bag. I don't think the size is as big in some of the late fields as we were thinking it was going to be this year."

The early garlic harvest in California was "just getting going," Grimes said. "Some of it is starting to be packed right now." Overall, acreage of California garlic is "fairly stable," and yields should be good this year, although the late garlic "may be a little bit light" because of sizing.

As for the Elephant garlic crop, "what I have seen looked very good," he said. "The sizes are there."

Meanwhile, the Baja California, Mexico, garlic was "very nice quality and selling well," but is dominated heavy to medium sizes, he said.

"Markets right now are still good," but when the Chinese garlic comes in, "things could change," he said. With the largest crop in four years, "they are talking about coming in at cheaper prices."

"I'm hearing positive reports" about California garlic, said Jim Provost, managing partner of I Love Produce in West Grove, PA, a major importer of Chinese garlic who also handles garlic from California and elsewhere. "The early garlic report said it is going to be a very good quality year" for California garlic, with "good skin, good size, just overall a good crop."

Paul Auerbach, president of Maurice A. Auerbach Inc. in Secaucus, NJ, which also sources garlic from many producing areas, told The Produce News July 8, "Right now we are in the middle of a very strong Baja crop. We just finished our Argentina [garlic] the end of June, and it was a very successful year."

The Baja product "looks like a box of California garlic," but it did not have a lot of big sizes, he said.

"California, from what I understand, should have a decent crop" this year, said Auerbach. "Everyone planted a little bit more acres following a couple of good years," but not significantly more.

The company expected to have California garlic available within two weeks and to transition more from Baja into California product over the summer.

"I would say by mid-August, we will be selling half of each," and by fall "be done with the Baja and just have the California," Auerbach said.

"We are also a player in the Chinese, but that is marketed basically to a different audience," he said. "There aren't as many customers that demand California as prefer non-Chinese."

However, there will be a demand for California garlic in the larger sizes, and customers who "will pay the difference to go from Chinese to non-Chinese product generally will also pay the additional money" to get the larger sizes from California.