The Dirt on Garlic

Courtesy of Christopher Ranch

food2_june10Media scares over tainted Chinese products have led U.S. consumers to investigate how garlic is produced, resulting in a resurgence of domestic sources—which actually have greater cooking and health benefits.

Garlic is grown globally, and has become a critical flavor component for a variety of international cuisines. China has emerged as the world’s leading source, growing two-thirds of global supply. Even in the United States, where California-grown garlic is available year-round, Chinese garlic amounts to well over half of domestic supply. The International Trade Commission reports that Chinese garlic exports into the United States in 2009 alone totaled 145 million pounds.

Most California garlic production is centralized in Gilroy, Calif., known as “the garlic capital of the world.” Gilroy-based Christopher Ranch has been an industry leader since 1956, when founder Don Christopher started farming garlic with a planting of 10 acres. Today, his son, Bill, oversees cultivation of more than 3,000 acres and shipment of more than 60 million pounds annually, distinguishing the ranch as the nation’s premier grower for the fresh market and the only commercial source of heirloom garlic.

It all starts with a single clove, which is planted as seed in the fall. Over time, the clove germinates, a sprout emerges, and the first signs of a new plant are evident. As the plant matures, the original clove falls off and a new bulb begins to form in its place. By spring time, the plant can reach a height of up to 2 feet. In the summer months, the leaves begin to yellow, water is cut off, and the bulbs begin an underground curing process that lasts several weeks. Finally, nine months after planting, the bulbs are undercut (usually by hand) and laid in rows to further cure in the sun and wind. The final harvesting step is to “hand top” the garlic by cutting the roots and stems and placing in storage bins. From there, they are taken to the packing facility to be processed.

Garlic’s A-Peel
Peeled garlic was introduced to the market more than 20 years ago in response to consumer demand for a solution to the tedious but necessary task of peeling cloves. Garlic processors long suspected that there may be a market for peeled garlic, but couldn’t figure out a way to peel the cloves efficiently without damaging them. Christopher Ranch experimented with several prototypes that didn’t deliver the quality they were targeting, and stumbled upon a workable solution by chance when a technician who was cleaning one of the sheds with an air hose blasted some cloves that had fallen into a coffee can. The compressed air, coupled with the rotational movement of the cloves in the can, cleanly removed the skins, and peeled garlic was born. This technology was incorporated into the proprietary state-of-the-art peeling plant on the ranch today.

Most peeled cloves are packed into jars, but some are placed into bins for further processing in either the purée plant or the roasting plant. In the purée plant, cloves can be chopped or puréed for use in foodservice or manufacturing applications. In the roasting plant, cloves pass through a convection oven for 10 minutes at 450°F to achieve a perfectly consistent golden hue and a nutty, mellowed flavor before being cooled under a series of fans and packed.

The convenience afforded by these value-added garlic products has led to a steady increase in garlic consumption over the years. Americans now consume an estimated 3.1 pounds of garlic per capita. This growth in popularity has also been supported by the hugely popular Gilroy Garlic Festival, founded in 1979 to promote garlic and support local charities. Thousands of garlic lovers flock to Gilroy every July to enjoy cooking demonstrations, garlic-topping contests, live music and an abundance of garlic-infused delicacies.

Despite garlic’s increasing popularity, U.S. production has actually declined over the last several decades. Starting in the early 1990s when domestic garlic plantings struggled with disease, Chinese imports have slowly gained traction in U.S. markets. A 376% anti-dumping tariff was implemented to prevent illegal dumping at U.S. ports, but Chinese imports have continued to grow nonetheless. California growers have taken a huge hit during this time, unable to compete with cheaper Chinese garlic that isn’t subject to the same quality, food safety, labor and environmental regulations. Recent media scares over tainted Chinese products, however, have led many consumers to investigate where their food is grown and how it is produced. This demand for greater transparency, accountability and oversight has led to the resurgence of domestic sources.

Domestic Garlic: Better All AroundBetter for You Analysis in food labs and feedback from consumers has revealed further differences in support of domestically grown garlic. Lab tests reveal that California garlic has 23% higher Brix levels, indicating that it has higher oil content and less water saturation, leading to a better sauté and more concentrated flavor. Allicin, the compound released when garlic is crushed, and likely responsible for garlic’s numerous reported health benefits, also exists in quantities up to 19% higher in domestic over imported. “Both our chef and processing customers report that California-grown garlic is two to three times more flavorful than Chinese garlic, negating any perceived price difference,” says Rick Dyer, national accounts manager for Christopher Ranch.

This past year, Chinese growers reacted to years of overproduction and low prices by cutting acreage by 50%. This led to a global shortage, which was further exacerbated by the swine flu, causing demand to skyrocket since garlic is widely regarded as a disease fighting agent. The supply shortage is likely to persist until the summer, when new crop becomes available. In the meantime, domestic growers continue their efforts to differentiate California-grown garlic as a fresher, more flavorful and more sustainable alternative to imported product. “Dining trends toward sustainability, locally grown produce and increased awareness about the stories behind our food supply all bode favorably for California growers in 2010 and beyond,” predicts Jeff Stokes, vice president of sales at Christopher Ranch.

Despite fierce competition from overseas, Christopher Ranch remains an innovative industry leader, introducing new eco-friendly packaging and adding green garlic to their product line this spring. The new bag reduces source material by 80%, eliminating hundreds of thousands of pounds of plastic and CO2 emissions, while extending freshness and maintaining product integrity. Green garlic is young garlic harvested before the bulb develops, yielding tender leaves with delicate flavor that add a mellow touch of garlic to any recipe. It has been growing in popularity among consumers and chefs, but availability has been limited to farmers’ markets and specialty produce purveyors during the springtime. The upcoming harvest marks the first time this seasonal delicacy will be available in markets nationwide beyond the spring.

Additional Info

  • topics: Food Trends
  • Chef Name: Christopher Ranch

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