As with so many commodities this year, weather has affected the quality of U.S. garlic, but growers are optimistic that prices will hold steady.

Rain early in the year and lower-than-normal temperatures in May caused a bit of staining and slightly smaller bulb size for the first crop, said third-generation grower Bill Christopher, president of Gilroy, Calif.-based Christopher Ranch.

Our yields were about average, though, and we are expecting a good second crop to come in,” Christopher said.

Jon Vessey, president of Vessey & Co. Inc., Holtville, Calif., said the first crop in one of his four Mexicali Valley packing sheds didn’t look as good as it usually does because of staining.

Overall quantity and quality of the first crop was down slightly, he said.

Hopefully with less crop, the prices will hold,” Vessey said. “The consumer is the ultimate judge so we will just have to wait and see.”

Jim Provost, president of West Grove, Pa.-based I Love Produce, was more upbeat in his assessment of the 2011 garlic season.

“We actually had new-crop garlic available from California before Mexico had white garlic available in the market for the first time I can remember,” Provost said.

Traditionally, the U.S. market has needed garlic from Mexico to bridge the gap to July when the new crop from California typically becomes available.

Provost credited a switch to hard-neck seed for his early crop.

The hard-neck white garlic is new to California, according to Provost, who said it has been commonly used in Mexico and Argentina. In addition to the early harvest time, the white hard-neck variety has more uniform clove structure. It also has edible scapes that can be harvested and sold for uses similar to those of green onions.

This is our third-year growing this variety in California,” Provost said. “Results the first year were not great, but we learned a good deal. We are turning out a beautiful bulb of garlic now.”

The main concern expressed by U.S. garlic growers about the 2011 season was the effect that a bumper crop in China could have on prices. Estimates for the Chinese crop, which is just past midharvest, show the country producing as much as 20% more this year than normal.

“Because we have a two-tiered market, good California garlic should command the same high price,” Provost said. “Our prices are 50% to 100% higher than theirs.”

Large retailers with whom Christopher Ranch works understand the two-tiered system, he said, as well as the fact that, unlike Chinese garlic, domestic garlic is subject to strict food safety requirements.

But Christopher has some concern that the large Chinese crop this year could upset the pricing balance of the system, which could mean lower prices for U.S. growers, he said.

There still is a consumer misconception that all garlic in stores comes from California, said Patsy Ross, Christopher Ranch’s vice president for marketing.

To combat that misconception, Christopher Ranch has an aggressive point-of-sale program for retailers.

The company also is encouraging retailers to sell garlic by the piece because per-pound pricing creates the misconception that garlic is more expensive to use than it actually is, Ross said.

Consumer input is also a key element in the growing and marketing strategy for Christopher Ranch, which has about 4,000 acres and ships about 60 million pounds a year.

“The consumers helped us figure out the opportunity we have with our heirloom variety,” Ross said.

The company has increased its percentage of heirloom plantings using seed that it grows themselves in Nevada’s high desert. The seed originated in Italy 50 years ago and now accounts for about half of the garlic Christopher Ranch grows.

Ross said chefs chose it over other varieties in blind taste tests because of its flavor and high brix count.

“One chain restaurant speced the specific variety,” she said. “We had a volume contract with them and they wanted to switch to a variety contract.”