EVP Ken Christopher carries on his grandfather’s garlic legacy from Gilroy, where investments in automation are fueling efficiencies in the company’s growing production operations.
A third-generation garlic farmer, Christopher’s great, great grandparents immigrated to California from Denmark in the 1880s. “They got their start in the prune industry,” he recounts, “and at that time, San Jose was known as the prune capital and canning capital of the world. There were lots of stone fruits, lots of plums, lots of apricots, and [the area] was known for its tremendous bounty of orchards.”
Christopher’s grandfather — Don Christopher, who had grown tired of prunes — decided to strike out on his own when he was about 20 years old. “He got a loan from his dad and came out to Gilroy, which at the time was known for its perfect Mediterranean climate,” Christopher continues. “It has really warm summers and then nice, cold winters. And that’s exactly what garlic needs.”
Though it began with a mere 10 acres of fields, the farm now grows garlic on over 6,000 acres across the state. Christopher Ranch owns some of the land and works with contract growers for the rest, harvesting just over 100 million pounds of garlic each year.
Christopher says the farm produces the only true “heirloom garlic” in the country. “By that we mean that our seed has been in our possession for over 50 years,” he explains. “And because garlic is an asexual plant, the flavor profile that my grandfather first came up with back in the 1950s is the exact same flavor profile that we have today.”
This flavor profile is defined in terms of Brix and Allicin. Brix is a measurement of the percentage of solids in the garlic’s juice, and garlic from Christopher Ranch typically has a Brix measurement that is 31 percent higher than Chinese garlic. Allicin is the sulphur compound that gives garlic its flavor and aroma. Christopher Ranch garlic has 24 percent more Allicin than Chinese garlic. Altogether, Christopher says this means his family’s garlic is “guaranteed to have a very robust flavor, whereas other garlic that is grown in California or around the world is going to have a much higher water content. So, you’re not going to get the same kind of spice that you’re going to get from our product.”
To ensure that the heirloom garlic they’re planting is hardy enough for California’s increasingly drought-stricken conditions, Christopher Ranch has developed a seed program in which they grow garlic in the high desert of Nevada and allow it to propagate for multiple seasons before it’s harvested, and each individual clove (or garlic seed) is then planted in California. “That way, we’re going to have really robust seed that’s going to thrive in the warmer California weather,” Christopher says.
Christopher Ranch only produces one crop of garlic each year. “Garlic is like a baby,” Christopher says. “It takes nine months to grow.” The harvest takes place between June and August, and the harvested garlic is transported to the farm’s 100,000-square-foot processing facility in Gilroy where many of its employees work to produce the company’s 500 SKUs including fresh garlic, peeled garlic, chopped garlic, roasted garlic, pickled garlic, and more.
“There’s simply no way to [fully] automate [the processing] yet,” Christopher says. “I don’t know if there ever will be. Every bulb of garlic is very, very unique. It’s going to have its own characteristics, and it requires the human eye and the human hand to determine whether it’s appropriate for retail or for peeling or roasting down the line.”
That said, the farm has invested in some automation to aid its staff with specific steps in the peeled garlic process. “We use optical sorters,” Christopher continues. “One scans all of our garlic and looks for any skins left on after it’s supposed to be peeled. If it detects skin, the computer fires a stream of air at the garlic clove, and it becomes re-peeled. We also have an optical sorter that analyzes for any bruising, decay, or sunburn. If the computer detects this is present in the pack, it’s going to fire a stream of air and kick that clove out of the pack.”
Christopher notes that this type of technology enables the farm to process over 200,000 pounds of peeled garlic every day with a crew of about 50 people for peeling and 50 for roasting.
Consumers can find Christopher Ranch garlic products at grocers nationwide. The company also sells its products to wholesalers, food service companies, and industrial clients. Prior to the pandemic, Christopher estimates that approximately 90 percent of the company’s sales were retail and 10 percent were to restaurants. He says that it has now settled to about 60 percent retail and 40 percent restaurant.
“In March of 2020, when COVID first hit, all of those sales going to restaurants essentially went to zero and our orders for retailers nationwide exploded,” he continues. “We had to redefine our business model overnight and restructure the company in a very quick way to not only capitalize on the sales but move our crops the best we could.”
Challenges: “Well, we’ve all seen the news,” says Christopher. “Freight right now is becoming prohibitive. The cost of diesel is skyrocketing, so that’s been frustrating to adapt to because a lot of our customers are on socialized pricing in that we’ve handled delivery for them. In normal times, that’s not a problem. We factor that out on a quarterly basis and things tend to even out. But now, with the unpredictability of energy, it’s getting to be a little bit of a headache to make sure that we have our prices correlated to what our costs are.”
Christopher notes that labor also continues to be an issue. “Until we have comprehensive immigration reform, it’s going to be an issue for the entire California agricultural sector,” he explains. “But we’re making do with what we can. We’re raising wages and trying to attract the talent that we need. But at some point, that cost does get passed on to consumers. And at some point, consumers might balk at what it costs to have American-grown produce. That’s more of a long-term threat.”
Another challenge is educating consumers about the importance of buying California-grown garlic.
“A little-known fact is about half of all the garlic consumed in the country is imported, with the lion’s share coming from China,” Christopher says. “I try to advise people to be very careful when they’re at the grocery store and picking up garlic salt or garlic powder from McCormick or another large company because there’s an extremely strong chance that the product is coming from China. There’s also a high likelihood that pre-jarred garlic is coming from China unless it’s stated on the label that it’s from California.”
Christopher notes that though many U.S. industries have been negatively impacted by the “dumping” of products by Chinese exporters — or the export of products to a country at below the cost of production in order to artificially gain market share and drive out the domestic players — garlic has been hit particularly hard. “The damages are to the tune of over $600 million,” he says. “We work with our congressmen, the White House, and our state representatives to do everything we can to right that injustice.”
Opportunities: Christopher identifies organic garlic as the biggest opportunity in a market in which every consumer already knows the company’s product and how to use it. “In the coming year, we’re forecasting an increase of about five percent in total sales, and that’s going to largely come from organic garlic, the newest category that we’ve invested in,” he continues. “Every year we’ve been investing to expand acreage, and every year demand has eclipsed total supplies. We’re looking forward to the day that we can grow as much organic garlic as our customers want.”
Beyond organic, Christopher says that the company views expanding international sales as an opportunity. “We went into Costco Japan about five years ago, and we’ve seen tremendous growth with them,” he adds. “And due to the success of our Japan program, we’re actively talking with Costco South Korea, Costco Taiwan, and Costco UK. For the first time, we’re an exporter of product where traditionally the United States has been an importer.”
Needs: “Our biggest need is just for logistics here in America to get back to normal,” Christopher says. When demand began outpacing the company’s supply during the COVID-19 pandemic, Christopher Ranch began importing a limited amount of Spanish and Argentinian garlic to ensure customer orders could be filled. “We rely on the ports functioning at a normal rate,” he continues. “Unfortunately, over the last six months that hasn’t been the case. We’ve had a lot of product sitting in containers on ships simply spoiling and rotting. And that’s garlic that is never going to be replaced.”