With or without a pandemic, the days leading up to Thanksgiving are some of the busiest of the year at American grocery stores. Shoppers rush through checkout lines with carts loaded with potatoes, pumpkin, cranberries and — that essential ingredient on almost every holiday shopping list — garlic.
This week, Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal checked in with Ken Christopher about the state of the industry. He’s the executive vice president of Christopher Ranch in Gilroy, California, which produces more garlic than any other grower in the U.S. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Kai Ryssdal: What’s the current state of the American garlic business?
Ken Christopher: The American garlic industry is in a very unique state right now. We’re seeing a surge of demand nationwide for garlic unlike we’ve seen in company history. My family’s been farming garlic since 1956, so you can imagine we know what we’re talking about when it comes to garlic, and we’re seeing shipments approaching 50%, 60%, 70% over the same time last year.
Ryssdal: Why do you think that is?
Christopher: So I think, nationwide, we’re seeing a lot more states starting to enforce restrictive orders. You can imagine with cold, with rain, with snow, more and more families are going to go to their local grocery stores, maybe instead of going out to restaurants, and so as that happens, there’s a natural increase in demand for fresh garlic.
Ryssdal: Does that imply that the garlic I buy at the supermarket is different than the garlic that my local restaurant would buy?
Christopher: That’s exactly right. So restaurants nationwide are going to purchase pre-peeled garlic. You know, back before 2020, before COVID, our sales were approximately half fresh garlic for retailers and about half was peeled garlic for restaurants, and we’ve seen a huge decline on the peeled side but a massive surge on the fresh side. And yeah, we’re just trying to adapt the best we can to handle supply chains nationwide.
Ryssdal: Let me ask you— big picture supply chain stuff— give me the current state of tariffs, would you, on garlic because that was a big thing for your industry back, 18 months ago.
Christopher: Yes. So back in the 1990s, my grandfather actually was the first one to petition the U.S. government to enact — I think it’s a 400% tariff on inbound Chinese garlic that is proven to be violating U.S. law. And then myself, I went out to Washington in 2018, to offer testimony to enact a fresh 25% tariff on top of what my grandfather did back in the ‘90s in order to try to stop Chinese garlic from entering our country. Before COVID, the existential threat to our company and to all U.S. garlic growers was Chinese garlic being illegally dumped on our shores. Since COVID, that threat has somewhat diminished because demand has grown so enormously. So it’s a unique place we’re finding yourself in.
Ryssdal: So you’re pro tariffs, but demand is helping you out just in terms of those margins and stuff?
Christopher: Exactly. Yes.
Ryssdal: Yeah. What do you suppose your industry looks like once we can all go back out to restaurants and there’s a change of administration and who knows what tariff policy is going to be? What’s your short to-medium term future?
Christopher: It’s looking encouraging because one of the other great threats beyond Chinese garlic has been comprehensive immigration policy. You know, the Trump administration wasn’t exactly immigration friendly. And as farmers, we rely on that critical pool of talent to get all the work that needs to be done. And so we’re looking forward to a Joe Biden administration working with Congress to finally get something going.
Ryssdal: Do you use a lot of garlic when you cook? Is that a thing you do?
Christopher: I do use a lot of garlic when I cook. If I’m looking at a recipe and it calls for two to three cloves, I’m going to double that, I’m going to quadruple that every single time. You know, my family has been a part of the garlic capital of the world here in Gilroy, California, for decades and so garlic is a critical part of who we are.
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