By Dennis Pollock, Reporter
Reprinted with Permission from California Farm Bureau Federation
If you open your car window just a tad as you drive through Gilroy, you’re almost certain to detect a distinctive smell: garlic.
It’s a smell that Kevin Collins, a manager at Borba Farms in Fresno County, loves. He’s a grower of garlic, after all.
“A dairyman likes the smell of cow manure,” he said. “I like the smell of garlic.”
Gilroy smells that way because of a major dehydrator operated there by the multinational Olam Group. Much of the garlic grown in Fresno County goes elsewhere for processing into fresh bulbs or dehydrated powder.
But Collins, like many in the garlic industry, has long known that Fresno County has been the true “garlic capital of California.”
People who don’t know better may have assumed, beyond the smell, that the title belonged to Gilroy because of the famed Gilroy Garlic Festival. That event recently announced its closure before being rescued and relocated to Stockton this year.
In truth, the competition between Gilroy and Fresno was never close. Fresno County is America’s foremost producer of the bulbs, with 77% of all the garlic in the U.S. grown in the region.
Over the weekend, the Big Fresno Fairgrounds sought to cement the county’s garlic credentials by playing host to the National Garlic Festival. The May 13-15 event featured garlic cooking demonstrations, garlic-inspired foods, midway games and more.
“I’m glad they (Fresno promoters) picked it up,” said Collins, ranch manager at Borba Farms, looking out at a field of fresh garlic where a worker is barely visible as he moves through the field checking drip lines.
Collins had no qualms about the festival being held there and talk about “the garlic capital of California.” It was promoting the crop, after all.
With a nearly $400 million value in 2020, according to the most recent crop year report, garlic is Fresno County’s forth most valuable crop, ranking behind almonds, grapes and pistachios. It ranks seventh overall in commodities when poultry, milk and cattle are added to the list. The crop is grown on some 24,000 acres in the county.
He explained that fresh garlic and garlic for the dehydrator are not labor intensive to grow. “Once they’re planted, there’s not much tractor work,” Collins said.
Collins was preparing to cut water to the field in anticipation of harvest. A machine would next go through the field, slicing beneath the bulbs. Then workers put them into windrows where they will dry.
After the bulbs dry, as many as 400 workers come in and do the clipping needed to ready the bulbs for their trips to supermarkets.
Collins said he hopes to get 8½ tons per acre out of the field, which stretches as far as the eye can see.
Challenges to grow a crop include the cost of the 28 inches of water the plants require each year. There are other challenges.
Collins’ boss, Mark Borba, cites one of the themes he said was partly responsible for a decline in garlic acreage in Santa Clara County, the former home to the Gilroy festival: white rot. He said the disease there resulted in some farmers being unable to grow the town’s signature crop.
Borba Farms has 1,900 acres of garlic, compared to 80 acres of plantings in the Gilroy area, Borba said.
Collins knows the threat of white rot all too well and is working to mitigate the threat. He explained that sclerotia, which is about the size of a pin head or poppy seed, bears a pathogen that can survive in the soil for more than 20 years.
He is chairman of the California Garlic and Onion Research Advisory Board. He warned that white rot can be spread from field to field on machinery and spoke of the danger of infected transplants. Researchers are trying to find fungicides to keep it at bay.
They’re also trying to “trick” the pathogen by applying materials in the field in the absence of onion or garlic, so that sclerotia germinate and cannot find an allium root. This causes them to die rather than lying dormant.
Collins explained that garlic must be rotated with other crops and grown only in each field every four years. Rotation crops include tomatoes, cotton, lettuce and melons.
“It requires a lot of open land,” Collins said.
That land abounds on the west side of Fresno County, where this garlic field sits outside of Five Points. But this time of year, something is planted in most of those fields.
Collins said in most cases, garlic is planted by the buyer, who purchases the virus-free seed that must be grown outside the area where it is to be planted. He said there is strong camaraderie among growers and processors.
Collins doesn’t just like the smell of garlic. He keeps a jar of the powdered product handy and adds some of that to his food, including his morning eggs.
“I like to eat my product,” he said, adding that he thinks many underestimate the amount of powdered garlic that is consumed.
Collins said the garlic powder winds up in all sorts of foods as an ingredient, including sauces, dressings and spice blends.
Borba is on an advisory board for the National Garlic Festival and credits Peter DeYoung, its chief operating officer and CEO of the Fresno-based National Food Festivals Inc., with “creating something out of thin air.”
Borba said he is pleased that sponsors this year included Christopher Ranch, which previously sponsored the Gilroy festival. DeYoung, a Fresno native, had an advertising agency that represented some agriculture clients, including the California Table Grape Commission.
It was as he dealt with those clients that DeYoung learned something new about Fresno County. The place long known as the raisin capital of the world and the dominant almond producer has another title: America’s garlic king.