The giant of Santa Clara County

Since its inception as an agricultural boomtown, Gilroy, California, has been known as the “garlic capital of the world”—and town leaders want it to stay that way

Garlic is inescapable in Gilroy, California. First, there is the smell, which, on a warm Sunday afternoon in early September, engulfs the city like a sheath, from which the only respite is indoors. Then, there is the imagery: plump bulbs of sensuous white garlic painted on the walls and windows of downtown buildings and anthropomorphized as characters in plush toys and bobblehead figurines in shop windows. At Gilroy Gardens, an agriculture-themed amusement park nestled in the rolling hills between a golf course and a winery, there is even a ride in which the spinning vehicles are sculpted to resemble enormous garlic bulbs.

There is the word itself, which appears frequently in the names of businesses—Garlic City Café, Garlic City Casino, Garlic City Barbers, the gift shop Garlic World and the motel Garlic Farm, both located just off Highway 101—and in the email addresses offered to residents by a regional internet provider. And, of course, there is the ingredient, which permeates not just the pastas and sandwiches and seafood dishes on the menu at several local restaurants, but is also now the flavor of beer, offered at the new Golden State Brew & Grill on Monterey Road, and ice cream, sold by the cup at Garlic World and its roadside neighbor, the Garlic Shoppe.

Gilroy, a small city about 35 miles south of San Jose, is known as “the garlic capital of the world.” But for all the ways garlic is ubiquitous in Gilroy, little of the bulbous crop is actually grown here—at least not anymore. That impenetrable aroma , which locals say is strongest on hot afternoons, is the result not of garlic fields, but of the behemoth garlic peeling, grating, and roasting facility owned and operated by Christopher Ranch. It is today the only commercial garlic producer in the city and one of just three nationwide.

The smell of crushed garlic—in Gilroy and elsewhere—is due to a chemical compound called allicin, which is produced when garlic cloves are chopped or crushed. Allicin protects the garlic against soil and parasites and also has added benefits, including providing antioxidants. The downside? So-called garlic breath.

Much of the land where garlic used to grow has been paved over for strip malls, outlet stores, and tract homes. As the garlic capital of the world undergoes a major transition, from a former farming town to a Silicon Valley commuter city, it risks losing the product that made it so famous.

Garlic, not unlike a human pregnancy carried to full term, requires nine months to grow. Harvest season runs from late June to early September, which leaves Christopher Ranch just three months to pack, peel, and store a year’s worth of product—or, more precisely, 100 million pounds of garlic, which marks a company record set this year for largest annual harvest. Half of the 100 million pounds of garlic will go into dry storage before being shipped to retailers like Costco and Whole Foods and fast-casual restaurant chains including Chipotle and Blaze Pizza.

The other half will get loaded into a series of white buildings, from which the oxygen is removed and in which the temperature is lowered to 32 degrees. Putting the garlic into stasis preserves its freshness.

“Utilizing our investments in cold storage, we’re the only garlic company in the country that guarantees American-grown garlic every single week,” says Ken Christopher, 33, the company’s executive vice president and the third generation of Christophers to run the family business. “Everyone else imports from China or Spain or somewhere else” during the off-season.

Ken Christopher, the third generation Christopher garlic scion, at the family’s production facility in Gilroy.

Christopher, who has spent the last dozen weeks inspecting 2,000-pound wooden bins of garlic as they arrive here by the truckload from nearby fields , wears bootcut jeans—not overalls, he points out, contrary to the stereotype of the small-town farmer—and a snug blue polo shirt that hugs his tanned biceps.

Each bin is meticulously labeled with a number representing the field where it was grown, and a color to indicate whether or not it’s organic. It costs about three times as much to grow as nonorganic garlic, but the financial returns are much higher.

Most of Christopher Ranch’s fields are in the Central Valley, where they were relocated in the 1990s after a disease called white rot decimated its local fields.

Christopher talks quickly, as if there are simply too many garlic facts to contain in a single conversation, and he repeats the phrase “American-grown garlic” often, like some kind of spiritual mantra. Lately, proving to customers that his garlic is American grown and peeled has become as much a personal mission for him as it is a professional obligation for his family’s company.

“Garlic is an innate part of who we are,” says Christopher. “Preserving, securing, and growing our family’s legacy is paramount to me. It’s everything.”

Earlier this year, Christopher Ranch launched an aggressive marketing campaign in response to allegations that it partnered with an importer that exploited the use of Chinese labor to peel garlic—the basis of an episode of the Netflix documentary series Rotten, which was released in January and focuses on labor practices in the food industry. When he discusses the allegations, which he categorically denies, Christopher is visibly distraught.

Christopher admits that about 5 percent of his company’s sales are sourced from Chinese products. He says this portion of Chinese garlic goes to the company’s satellite warehouses, not its Gilroy headquarters, and is never labeled as a Christopher Ranch product. Instead, it’s reserved for repeat customers who demand the cheapest possible garlic in bulk, along with “our ginger, our bell peppers, our organic garlic ,” says Christopher, so it’s in the company’s best interest to appease them.

Garlic accounts for about 95 percent of Christopher Ranch’s overall production.

Christopher at one point considered suing Rotten’s producers, but ultimately, he says, he can’t prove there were damages because the documentary hasn’t affected Christopher Ranch’s bottom line. Still, to defend its reputation, the company is investing in social media, redesigning product packages to feature images of the American flag , and producing videos of its fields and factories, including proprietary equipment that the company normally keeps secret from its competitors .

An early test design for the new packaging featured an American flag at the top of the package of peeled garlic. The company quickly scrapped the design after realizing that it required customers to tear the image of the American flag in order to open the package.

Christopher claims the company invented the first industrial garlic peeler in the country after workers accidentally discovered, in the 1980s, that compressed air removes skin from the clove without breaking it.

But Christopher and other U.S.-based garlic growers argue that the bigger threat comes from Chinese garlic exporters themselves, who grow and sell a vast majority of the world’s garlic—at prices that many American growers can’t compete with.

Christopher testified in August in support of President Donald Trump’s tariff on Chinese garlic imports. The Chinese-export problem, however, is hardly new. In 1993, Christopher Ranch founder Don Christopher formed the Fresh Garlic Producers Association to advocate for greater regulation.

Still, the company has managed to stay profitable—and locally popular, with a waiting list of about 150 people who want to work there. Of Christopher Ranch’s roughly 1,000 full-time employees, including at several satellite warehouses across the country, 600 are Gilroy-based “sorters,” or those who work eight-hour shifts on the assembly line. Their job is to ensure every bulb of garlic that passes through the labyrinth of floor-to-ceiling conveyor belts is pristine enough for retail consumption. Those with deficiencies, known as “off-grades,” are picked out by hand and tossed in a pile. They’ll later get cracked into cloves, which will then become either roasted, chopped, crushed, or pureed.

The sorters earn more than California’s $11-an-hour minimum wage—their $15 an hour is on par with starting wages for companies like Amazon—and have access to subsidized health care and free on-site preschool, the result of the company’s private-public partnership with the federal government.

“We’ll never want to sell out, we’ll never want to take faceless corporate partners,” says Christopher. “We want to be able to do everything that’s right for our family, our town, our company, even if it doesn’t make the best financial sense.”

Before it was called the garlic capital, Gilroy was known as the prune capital of the world. Plum trees dotted the land from here north to San Jose, and when they blossomed in the spring, the petals would turn the hillsides an angelic shade of lilac-white.

“It was a beautiful sight,” remembers Al Gagliardi, a second-generation prune farmer who was born in San Jose and moved to Gilroy with his family in 1926. It was just before the Great Depression, and land was cheap. His father bought 10 acres, but “business was lousy,” says Gagliardi, recalling a time when prunes sold for two cents a pound. “We were called prune pickers and you weren’t called that with any kind of pride. It was a put-down.”

Christopher’s grandfather, Don Christopher, began his career as a prune farmer, too, working on his Danish immigrant parents’ prune orchard in San Jose . He founded Christopher Ranch in that city in 1956, on 10 acres of land that he eventually sold to IBM.

Before it was Silicon Valley, San Jose was known as the canning and stone fruit capital.

He used the money to expand his operations in Gilroy, where pioneering farmer Kiyoshi “Jimmy” Hirasaki had already planted the seeds for the city’s future as the garlic capital, and entrepreneur Joseph Gubser Jr. had revolutionized commercial garlic production. But it wasn’t until the Gilroy Garlic Festival, dreamed up as a marketing scheme in 1979 , that Gilroy truly became famous for garlic.

As the story goes, the president of a local community college lobbied Don Christopher and another local farmer to start the festival after reading an article about a similar event in a French city that claimed to be the garlic capital of the world.

The annual Gilroy Garlic Festival occurs each year at the end of July. Festival organizers estimate 2018 attendance at over 80,000 visitors.

“They were expecting maybe 5,000 attendees and then 15,000 showed up,” says Ken Christopher, his grandson. “They were caught completely flat-footed, and you can imagine what kind of controlled chaos that must’ve been.”

of Gilroy residents commute to the Bay Area every day

To Polly Adema, a culinary anthropologist and folklorist, the festival’s success was the result of two things: “The dumb luck of timing, in the 1970s, and the dumb luck of geography,” she says. “Their proximity to the Bay Area and this kind of alternate food community that embraced garlic at a time when mainstream America didn’t really embrace garlic.”

The Gilroy Garlic Festival, as it turns out, debuted just three years after chef Alice Waters started hosting an annual Bastille Day garlic festival at her Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, which is known internationally. Garlic at the time “had not become mainstream yet in part because it was a carryover of these lingering prejudices of spicy foods that were particularly odiferous,” says Adema. But Waters’s event helped shed the American stereotype of garlic as “the food of smelly, stinky immigrants,” says Adema, and transform it into an essential ingredient favored by the chefs and farmers in the hip Bay Area countercultural scene.

The Gilroy Garlic Festival draws more than 100,000 people to Gilroy every July. It features live cooking competitions with contestants from all over the world and a garlic-themed scholarship pageant—contestants must recite trivia and perform garlic-inspired skits—plus celebrity chefs like Giada De Laurentiis. At this year’s festival, its 40th anniversary, local Carlos Pineda was named the winner of the Garlic Showdown for the second year in a row. “Next year I have to compete again,” says Pineda, who works as a chef for a bakery and catering company owned by the nonprofit Rebekah Children’s Services. “It’s a lot of pressure.”

Like a lot of Gilroy natives, Pineda, 30, grew up going to the Gilroy Garlic Festival every year. But his roots in garlic date back to the 1940s, when his grandparents came to California from Texas to pick prunes and almonds during harvest season. They eventually moved to Gilroy, working together in a garlic processing plant then known as Gilroy Foods .

In 2010, its assets were acquired by the Singapore-based food corporation Olam. It is still one of the largest employers in Gilroy.

Pineda’s mother recently retired after spending nearly 30 years working as a preschool teacher, including at the on-site preschool at Christopher Ranch. His father works for a nursery owned by Michael Bonfante, an arborist and the founder of the Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park.

Though he briefly lived and worked in Southern California, Pineda says his family and his job—teaching culinary skills to disadvantaged youth—keep him firmly rooted in Gilroy, a city that has for years struggled with gangs and drug problems. “I’ve lost now a handful of students to drug and alcohol violence, in accidents or overdoses. It’s quite prominent,” says Pineda.

But he also acknowledges that the city is changing. “A lot of people keep moving here because it’s a place to grow and raise your family.”

Chef Carlos Pineda, winner of the local festival’s Garlic Showdown two years running, is rooted to the community because of family ties and his job teaching culinary skills to disadvantaged youth.

Since 2000, the city of Gilroy has grown 39 percent, to a population of roughly 57,000 today. Of those, some 15,000 people commute out to the Bay Area every day, according to Tammy Brownlow, president of Gilroy Economic Development Corporation. Another 12,000 people, she says, commute to Gilroy from the surrounding areas to work at the outlet stores, wineries, food packing plants, and, of course, Christopher Ranch. A coworking space opened last year in a former billiards hall downtown, which itself is undergoing a revitalization.

Brownlow credits the population boom to the improved economy and the housing squeeze in the Bay Area, which has brought people with higher education and more technology skills to Gilroy. “There’s not too many options in areas to the north, and if there are, then the price point is going to be astronomical,” she says. “Our big challenge is convincing technology companies, ‘Why don’t you put your business where your workforce is coming from?’”

Some residents don’t see the influx of new residents as a good thing. The grassroots community group Gilroy Growing Smarter was founded in 2016, initially to oppose city-approved plans for a 721-acre development that would have put more than 4,000 new homes on farmland. The group put a measure on the ballot that year and successfully halted the development.

But plenty of other developments are already in the works. There is the 17-neighborhood, 392-acre planned community Glen Loma Ranch, which is already partially inhabited. Then there is the California High Speed Rail project, otherwise known as the bullet train, which is slated to run through Gilroy in 2033, if and when it is completed. A so-called “agri-tourist commercial development,” which was approved by the city in July and includes a winery and tasting room, shops and restaurants, and apartments, doesn’t sit right with some residents.

“It’s a struggle for people who realize that economic growth and prosperity for all is great, but when outside developers come in and do things like this, then that raises hackles,” says Phill Laursen, a retired high school teacher and member of Gilroy Growing Smarter.

No matter how big Gilroy gets or how many companies take up residence, there’s nothing like the pungent smell of roasted garlic to remind the city of its roots. That is, assuming Christopher Ranch can win its war against Chinese exporters and continue to stay profitable long into the future. To Gagliardi, the 94-year-old former prune farmer who watched that fruit go out of style, the only industry more unpredictable than real estate is agriculture.

“Everything comes to an end and then something else takes over,” he says. “Christopher, he’s big. He spent millions of dollars for a school. He’s a good name, made tons of money, and he’s willing to give it back to the community where he made it.”

Even still, farming is a fickle pursuit and consumers’ tastes change all the time. “I don’t know,” says Gagliardi. “Garlic is a popular item now, but who knows?” Tomorrow, he says, “might be watermelon.”

Jennifer Swann is a writer and producer in Los Angeles, where she recently co-founded The Land, a new magazine collective run by former LA Weekly writers. Her culture reporting has appeared in print in Rolling Stone, the Washington Post, and the LA Times, and on the airwaves at KCRW.


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