(Aug. 11) A big influx of fresh Chinese garlic has helped boost per capita consumption but has sliced U.S. garlic output and cut grower returns.

A recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service states that per capita use of garlic (fresh and processing) rose 13% in 2003 to 2.8 pounds. China’s exports of fresh garlic to the U.S. jumped 15% last year, the USDA said.

U.S. import statistics show that imports for fresh Chinese garlic have rocketed from 666 metric tons in 1999 to nearly 25,000 metric tons in 2003. What’s more, the USDA reports that shipments of Chinese garlic from January through May were 10,895 metric tons, up 17% from the same period in 2003.

Joe Nunez, Bakersfield, Calif.-based vegetable farm adviser for Kern County, said garlic growers there are looking at other crops such as peppers to provide economic options.

“Acreage is going down all over the country for the same reason — cheap imports,” he said.

Statistics clearly illustrate the slump. The USDA reported the value of the U.S. garlic crop in 2002 was $153 million, down 12% from 2001.

U.S. harvested acreage of 32,800 acres was off 7% from the previous year.

The downward trend in production is most evident in California. The state accounted for 27,000 acres harvested in 2002, off from a peak of 40,000 acres in 1999.

It may be too early to say if garlic acreage has bottomed out, industry leaders say.

“Everybody has dropped acreage. I’d like to think we are kind of where we need to be,” said Joe Lane, partner with The Garlic Co., Bakersfield.

Meanwhile, Roger Eder, onion and garlic grower in Woodburn, Ore., said Chinese garlic was weighing on garlic production there.

“It’s cheaper to ship it from China than to raise it here,” he said. “The Chinese will keep the market devastated for a long time,” he said.

U.S. garlic growers have been battling cheap Chinese garlic imports for well more then 10 years. In fact, in 1994, the Commerce Department slapped a 376% tariff of Chinese garlic exporters who had dumped product in the U.S. market.

However, because the Commerce Department allows new shippers to post bond instead of paying the tariff upfront — unlike other nations — Lane said fly-by-night Chinese companies can ship thousands of tons of garlic to the U.S. without paying the tariffs.

Then, a year or more later, when the Commerce Department finds they have been selling below the dumping price and must pay the tariff, the companies disappear.

Lane said that results in millions in uncollected duties and an ineffective protection against low prices Chinese garlic imports.

“They end up getting thrown out, declaring bankruptcy and disappearing,” he said.

Other companies try to circumvent the tariff, Lane said, by stating a shipment of 1,600 cartons sold for $18 per carton, when in fact the shipper overstuffs the container with 1,800 cartons at an effective price of several dollars per carton less.

The Garlic Company imports some Chinese garlic, but he said the margins are small if you do it the right way and sell above the dumping price.

Meanwhile, he said there continues to be disparity in the price of imported and California garlic.

For example, in mid-July, he said distressed peeled garlic was selling in the Los Angeles market at 33 cents per pound. A typical price for peeled garlic from China is about 75-80 cents per pound. California peeled garlic typically sells for about $1 per pound.

While large garlic growers remain in California, he said the industry has contracted severely in 10 years.

“In 1994, there were about 12 or 14 people in the California fresh Garlic Producers Association. Now there are five, and there will be four left after this year,” he said.