Gilroy’s 34th annual Garlic Festival is next week. Behind the celebration of this popular produce, local garlic growers are in an ongoing trade war with China.
At Christopher Ranch in Gilroy, a town often referred to as Garlic Capital of the World, two dozen employees stand along an assembly line sorting garlic bulbs for size. They pack the bulbs into boxes then forklifts take the boxes outside to be shipped to retail stores and restaurants. Christopher Ranch is the largest producer of fresh garlic in the country. But they don’t begin to compare with China which produces 60 times the amount of garlic grown in all of the U.S. “They grow billions of pounds, so it is really tough to compete with them worldwide. They are by far the largest in the world,” said Bill Christopher, President and CEO of Christopher Ranch.
20-years ago local growers began noticing that China was selling garlic in the United States, for half the going price. US growers couldn’t compete. It nearly killed their production. To level the playing field, Congress imposed a near 400-percent tariff, or tax, on the Chinese Companies. While that worked for a short time, there was a loophole. New Chinese companies don’t pay the tariff until proven to be selling below US market price. And by the time US Custom officials are onto the new company, it closes and a new one takes its place. “It’s been a struggle for the last ten years, and it will probably be for a long time in the future,” said Christopher. In April, Congress renewed the tariff with loophole for another five years. That prompted an angry reaction from China’s largest English language newspaper The China Daily. It quoted a Chinese official saying it is “impossible” for garlic to be priced below the fair market value and called the tariff unfair.
Although most of the garlic consumed in the US comes from China, Esteban Guerrero rarely sells it. He’s the produce manager at Shoppers Corner Market in Santa Cruz. He says his customers are vocal about wanting to buy local. “They don’t actually say why they don’t like it or not, you know, they just make that weird face and go like ‘oooo China’,” said Guerrero.
Growing consumer preference for locally grown and the tariff have caused a break in the Garlic war for now. “I think that those growers have accepted the level at which the level of Chinese garlic is present in the market, and at this level they are competing fine. It’s been a decent crop for them,” said Tom Turini, UC Cooperative Extension Agent for Fresno County. Fresno County is where most of the US garlic is grown. But Turini and Christopher worry the break in the Garlic War will not last. Their concern is US Customs doesn’t have the staff to enforce the tariff and the loophole will not be closed.
As for next week’s Gilroy Garlic Festival, Christopher Ranch is the official garlic supplier, and Bill Christopher says all the garlic local.