Garlic unlikely major crop in Fresno
Among the sweet and juicy food products grown in Central California, garlic has suddenly taken a prominent and pungent position.
It was the 10th largest economic producer for the 2009 crop year in California's most productive agricultural county, Fresno. Of the 250 crops tabulated there, only grapes, processing tomatoes, poultry, almonds, cattle and calves, milk, nectarines, oranges and peaches accounted for more income than garlic.
The sweet perfume of successful garlic production was shared in a small way with neighboring Kings County and to a lesser degree with Kern County. But Fresno County has become the undisputed garlic producing capital of California.
The ascent of "scentual" garlic has been gradual and quiet on the west side of Fresno County. Members of the industry are not boasting about eclipsing the cherished position of Gilroy in Santa Clara County as the "garlic capital of the world."
After all, who wants to detract from Gilroy's annual garlic festival, where free garlic ice cream is one of the most sought-after delicacies? The 32nd-annual festival was held on the last weekend in July. Hundreds of thousands have attended since its first presentation in 1979.
The Gilroy area apparently has no intention of giving up its identification with the pungent bulb. Dehydrating facilities there process most of the garlic (dried) produced in Fresno County anyway. Air in the Gilroy area frequently— some believe permanently — carries the fragrance of garlic as it is dehydrated.
So what is it about Fresno County soil that makes it so appropriate for garlic production? For one thing, there's a lot of it. Garlic likes the warmth that attends the westside's large acreages. Farmers there are accustomed to producing huge volumes of compatible crops, harking back to their earlier involvement with mile-square blocks of cotton and other high-volume crops.
Surprisingly, the 16,500 acres of garlic growing in California, most of it in Fresno County, is less than half the amount that was produced 15 years ago. An epidemic of garlic rust struck in 1996 and '97, drastically reducing output. Garlic from China substituted for that diminished supply and has held tightly to its position ever since.
But demand by Chinese consumers for more garlic-seasoned food products has reduced the amount that the Chinese can export, strengthening the market for California's crop.
Producers in California have organized and established a marketing order to support research that will help understand, detect and control the diseases and conditions such as the one that devastated the crop in the mid-1990s. It operates as the California Garlic and Onion Research Advisory Board, located in Clovis.
Harvest begins in July, and is tightly regulated. Only enough garlic is harvested each day to supply dehydrators. The state's three dehydrators tell their growers how much they can handle on a daily basis, and growers stop harvesting when they reach that level. Once dried, the garlic is further processed as flakes, powders, juice, oil and peeled cloves. Hardly any soup or any other canned or prepared product on grocers' shelves can be found that doesn't include garlic.
In the produce section, consumers find fresh garlic, although the dried outer leaves and solid cloves seem to defy that description.
So look out raisins, peaches, plums and nectarines; garlic is making a comeback in Fresno County, making dollars and scents in the process.
CONTACT Don Curlee at firstname.lastname@example.org