Challenging times cause garlic sales adjustments

chrisranch Like many other produce crops, demand for garlic has been materially affected by COVID-19 as consumers react to both the virus and the government-mandated regulations. Demand for garlic at retail has skyrocketed as consumers are cooking more at home while foodservice demand has gone the other directions with many closed restaurants and institutional feeders dotting the landscape. Garlic’s traditional reputation as a food with curative powers is also seemingly playing a role as consumers try to eat healthier.

Ken Christopher, executive vice president of Christopher Ranch, based in Gilroy, CA, said with the increased retail demand since March, the company has been concentrating on supply fulfillment and not working on new projects such as new packaging. He did say that Christopher Ranch is putting in an extra fresh garlic packing line to meet the increased demand. He opined that garlic’s reputation as a super food has added to the demand, but quickly noted that the reputation is anecdotal and not based on any peer review studies.

One very fortuitous fact is that this year’s harvest is grading out much better than usual. Garlic has both an early variety harvest, which took place in mid- to late spring, and a late variety harvest, which was about 50 percent completed by July 26. Christopher said the 2019 crop had fewer retail grade garlic bulbs than usual while 2020 is doing better than usual.

“Last year, about 40 percent of the production was good for retail while this year, 60 percent are making that grade,” he said.

Christopher said that an adjustment in cultural practices is one of the reasons. Toward the end of the growing season, if the conventional garlic is hit with extra water and fertilizer, Christopher said the harvest will yield larger garlic but a higher percentage of processing grade bulbs as some of those bulbs will grow too big. This season, the company’s growers have not used the extra water or fertilizer on the crop. Because of the extra demand for retail bulbs, that small shift in cultural practices has resulted, he said, in bulbs a little bit smaller and a little less white. But they are in line with demand.

“The consumer might notice that they are a little less than perfect,” he said, but the increase in supply has normalized the f.o.b. price. “In March and April, right after the pandemic hit, demand at retail was very high and we saw a shortage and higher prices; we are back to normal now,” noting that he was talking about the retail sector on fresh garlic.

Jarred processed garlic, another retail product, has been in great demand and there are shortages of that product as it is difficult to keep up with demand. Of course, foodservice demand for processor grade garlic also continues to be less than normal. “Usually foodservice accounts for about 40 percent of shipments,” Christopher said. “Right now, it is at 15 to 20 percent and we are projecting that it is going to stay at that figure through 2020.”

Some areas with significant foodservice demand, including Texas, Florida and Southern California, have seen spikes in COVID-19 cases and a re-imposition of their foodservice regulations with many restaurants being forced to curtail service again. “Unfortunately, we don’t see that changing until we get a vaccine,” Christopher said.

As a company, he said Christopher Ranch has done very well managing the COVID-19 crisis. “The head of our food safety department, Janette Codiga, is a 30-year veteran with us and she got ahead of this at the very beginning.”

He noted that the company has been encouraging its workers to be tested for the virus and have put social distancing orders in place. “We have tried to take the stigma out of getting tested,” he said. “I’ve been tested three times, all negative.”

As mentioned, the company has expanded its hours by adding workers and a shift to keep with demand.

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