(July 31) GILROY, Calif. — California’s garlic industry is staring at a plague the size of China.

In fact, the plague is China.

For years, garlic producers in California have worked to keep Chinese garlic out of their market.

Now growers seem resigned to the presence of lower-priced bulbs from the Chinese mainland.

Don Christopher, owner of Gilroy-based Christopher Ranch LLC, recently said in a published report that low-priced imported garlic from China could do considerable damage to production in California, where an hourly wage of $8.50 dwarfs the dollar-a-day pay commonly found in China.

THROWING IN THE TOWEL

Now, after 12 years of lobbying politicians for duties and other trade restrictions against Chinese product, Christopher Ranch and others are signaling surrender.

Christopher Ranch — the company spent $400,000 just last year on legal and lobbying help to combat the tide of Chinese imports — for the first time, is bringing in garlic from China, although the company says that the volume is limited.

The firm cited an increase in Chinese product in the U.S. market in recent months as having driven wholesale prices below production costs.

U.S.-grown garlic sells wholesale for 60-80 cents per pound, compared to 40-50 cents per pound for China product.

China’s low wages are a potential problem for other would-be competitors, as well. In Mexico, whose season precedes California’s, workers average about $5 per day.

HEAVY INTO GARLIC

China produces 66% of the world’s garlic, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, while the U.S. produces 3%.

Chinese garlic has been flowing into the U.S. since 1993, and even then it was priced below U.S. product in spite of steep tariffs.

Christopher Ranch’s chief rival, Bakersfield-based The Garlic Co., also plans to import from China.

Others may take their lead.

Patsy Ross, marketing director for Christopher Ranch, said much is being made over nothing.

STILL PRODUCING DOMESTICALLY

“There was an (Associated Press) reporter here, and she got a quote both from us and The Garlic Co., and we both said we were planning to import. There’s not one bulb here from China yet,” Ross said. “There is in the works an order, and it’s not going to be a lot. We’re still going to have 70 million pounds this year.”

Christopher Ranch grows garlic on about 4,000 acres, which, Ross said, was only a slight decrease from the acreage of recent years.

The difference in labor costs is undeniable, however, said Joe Lane, partner in The Garlic Co.

“Sure it’s an issue,” he said. “We pay more in one hour of workman’s comp than a Chinese person would make in a day, so labor is a big factor.”