There's more to garlic than meets the nose, and one big issue for the California industry these days — likely little known to the public — is dealing with competition from Chinese garlic imports.
Daniel J. Brotslaw of Rogers Foods, Inc., a garlic processor at Turlock, says the shortfall in California garlic production in 1999 allowed China, said to produce about 70 percent of the world supply, a foothold on the domestic market.
Chinese garlic sells at about 38 cents a pound in the market place, or about a third to half what California producers can expect, the onion and garlic researcher said during a recent field day at the Bay Area Research and Education Center in Santa Clara.
Although quality of Chinese garlic has been questioned, it is reportedly improving, he added. And even when California producers marketed so-called value-added garlics, organic or nutriceutical grade products, the Chinese were quick to follow suit.
Brotslaw said the California industry, whose 1999 crop was valued at nearly $200 million, stood firm in claiming higher quality. “Our garlic is generally grown by larger growers in lots of 150 acres or more. Growers are self-regulated, while all the processors maintain a high level of control during the growing of the crop and provide the seed to the growers.”
Processors also specify which pesticides are used, perform residue testing, and prohibit use of organic fertilizers to avoid E. coli or other contamination issues in the crop.
California dehydrators, who have been dynamic with consolidations, as well as breakthroughs in research, evaluate garlic for several traits, including dry matter content, white color, clove counts of about 10 per bulb, shape, and pungency. At this time commercial garlic is grown vegetatively.
California is a good location for growing garlic due to its typically wet winters and dry summers with a harvest period that extends into October allowing the crop to be field-stored. In most other garlic-producing areas the crop risks becoming spoiled by fall rains.
The San Joaquin Valley has an ideal climate for the crop used for dehydration, while acreage grown for seed is remote at higher elevations of the Sierra, northern California, and central Oregon.
But the SJV favors pests as well. Disease-vectoring aphids survive the mild winters quite well, and white-rot virus, considered the AIDS of the crop, persists.
Benefits of virus-free garlic are better yields, more consistent quality, a better increase ratio from the cloves, and better plant survival rate.
Processors found the best way to get around the virus is to start with a meristem-tip culture from cloves to get virus-free shoots, which are then proliferated as rapidly as possible in isolation. The technique, originally used for tulips and potatoes, is considered low-tech and has been in practice since the 1950s.
“The great advantage to being in California is we can take newly-developed virus-free lines to an isolated location in a mountainous area without agriculture or the virus. That's how we can maintain the virus-free status for many years,” said Brotslaw.
California, Nevada, and Oregon have certification processes for seed free of stem and bulb nematodes.
For vegetative planting of garlic, about 2,000 pounds per acre is set out, at a ballpark cost of at least $1,000 per acre, not counting the risks of contracting disease in the handling of stock. The clove “seed” cannot be stored for use later, he said.
Among the disadvantages of vegetative propagation is planning needed to have adequate seed for future acreage to meet dehydration demand, which has been obscured by foreign competition and domestic processor consolidation.
Onion, on the other hand, is planted with true seed, at three to four pounds per acre for a cost of $300 or less per acre. If acreage needs change, surplus seed remains viable in cold storage for up to several years.
“Perhaps the biggest advantage of planting with true seed,” Brotslaw said, “is very few diseases are spread by seed. And the potential value from a research perspective is that we can now finally truly breed our own varieties.”
Rather than bringing in garlic from many places in the world for new variability, “we make it ourselves and make selection on solids, maturity, and color of the product.”
Rogers Foods first isolated true seed in 1989, and by 1996 it was producing 10,000 seeds per year. Since 1999, it has produced more than one million seeds per year.
His company's long-term goal is to plant garlic with seed as onions are now. Its intermediate goal is improved dehydration-type varieties. The short-term goal is superior fresh-market varieties, still vegetatively propagated but having unique attributes.
Brotslaw said the garlic industry needs help from public sector research to prevent wide swings in garlic crops and prices. “We don't want dehydrated garlic from California to go the way of the sardine industry on Monterey Bay.”
Industry concerns are greater understanding of the white-rot virus and how it is transmitted, full compliance with existing seed certification, and greater urgency in research projects to resolve those issues.
Little garlic research was done in California before the 1970s, although in 1960 the state established the first seed certification program for garlic. Industry research enjoyed a run-up in the 1990s, only to recede about 10 years later. Dehydrators now rely on proprietary efforts.
However, USDA and University of California specialists continue varietal research. A USDA plant geneticist at Parlier, Maria Jenderek, is evaluating public accessions of garlic originating in 27 countries and the U.S. and provided by USDA at Pullman, Wash., and the University of Wisconsin.
She said since she began the work in 1999 she has seen many plants producing purple flower heads, a good indication of the ability to produce true seeds.
Jenderek also observed plants reproduced by seed having color, maturity, and number of cloves different from plants reproduced vegetatively. Certain plant lines that formed seed stalks in Wisconsin did not do so when grown at Parlier's more southerly latitude.
Ron Voss, Cooperative Extension vegetable specialist at UC, Davis, displayed 300 varieties of garlic grown at the 17-acre station in Santa Clara. He screened material from Korea, Poland, Spain, Syria, Morocco, and a dozen other origins.
For the past four years Voss has made his germplasm evaluations of plant maturity, vigor, leaf color, and other physical traits, but this season the observations are expanded with other specialists collecting data on post-harvest storage, virus identification, and genetics.
Voss' trials are supported by UC, California processors, and the onion and garlic industries of Nevada.
Maria de la Fuente, Cooperative Extension director for Santa Clara County, said the California garlic industry's concerns, in addition to white-rot, are the potential loss of existing crop protection materials, the difficulty of registering new materials for minor crops, and the increasing Chinese imports, estimated at 50,000 tons in 1999.
Garlic acreage in the state in 1999 was 40,000, some 90 percent of it in the San Joaquin Valley and concentrated in Fresno County. Sixty-five percent of the 246,000-ton crop was dehydrated as a processed food ingredient or as a spice, and the balance was sold fresh.