(Sept. 3, 3:13 p.m.) COALINGA, Calif. — Eighteen months ago, a new garlic packing shed was a low priority at Harris Fresh Inc. The focus for general manager Doug Stanley was planning a new onion packing shed, he said.

Everything changed May 11, 2007, when a welder’s torch touched off a fire. Within minutes, the company’s aging garlic packing shed was ashes.

A 30,000-square-foot garlic packing shed has risen from those ashes. Two-thirds of the facility contains the packing line and storage areas. Those 20,000 square feet are temperature controlled, Stanley said.

“This facility demonstrates Harris Fresh is committed to the California deal,” Stanley said. “We’re definitely going to be around.”

The future of the domestic garlic industry has been in question in recent years because of skyrocketing imports from China.

“Before importers began sourcing from China, there were as many as 20 major U.S. garlic grower-shippers,” Stanley said. “Now there are about a half dozen.”

The new garlic shed, which Stanley said is an organic-certified handler, features a five-lane sizer and packing line manufactured and installed by MAF Industries Inc., Traver. It is the manufacturer’s first garlic line in the U.S. said Dennis Bilton, director of sales for MAF Industries.

A key advantage was proximity, Stanley said. The MAF Industries U.S. headquarters is within an hour’s drive of Harris Fresh in Coalinga.

Stanley said Jose Solorio, garlic shed operations manager for Harris Fresh, worked closely with David Mills, California sales manager for MAF Industries, in designing a packing line that met the needs of the grower-shipper-packer.

“It’s very gentle equipment,” Stanley said. “We suffer less than 1% loss from mechanical damage.”

Food safety is another feature of the line.

“All metal parts of the packing line that come into contact with the garlic are made of stainless steel,” Bilton said.

The packing line is computer controlled. From a small office above the packing line, a monitor reveals the entire operation down to the smallest detail, Stanley said. The computer replaces a series of mechanical switches that controlled the former packing line, he said.

“I can reprogram the line with the click of a mouse,” Stanley said. “With the old system, just changing sizes required a mechanic, a helper and a half hour of packing line down time.”

The emphasis on food safety for Harris Fresh starts in the field. All of the garlic packed in the new shed, Stanley said, is grown by another division of the company, Harris Farms, which is overseen by Steve Ozuna, general manager.

The product goes into bins that hold up to 2,000 pounds of garlic. They are stored and protected from the elements in a covered pole barn adjacent to the packing shed. Each bin, Stanley said, is labeled with information on the date harvested and the location of the field.

“We have instant traceability,” he said.

The packing shed is not yet operating at 100% capacity, but that is by design, Stanley said. The goal is to learn what the equipment can do and, if necessary, to make alterations that maximize the shed’s productivity, he said.

Company control is not limited to growing and packing. Harris Fresh markets all the garlic packed under the Harris Fresh label, Stanley said. Packing continues through the end of September, he said.

“We expect to be sold out by the end of the year,” Stanley said.

About 70% of the packout is in 30-pound cartons, he said. Harris Fresh also packs 10-pound cartons and custom packs 5-pound tubes. Ten-kilogram cartons are packed for export, Stanley said.

More information about the product and packing options may be found at the company’s Web site, www.harrisfresh.com.

The next project on Stanley’s drawing board, he said, is an 8,000-square-foot cold-storage facility. Once that’s completed, the onion packing shed will return to the front burner.