Robert Ehn says there is more to onions and garlic than their distinctive aromas.

“Our processors and handlers contract with growers to care for their onions and garlic,” Ehn, CEO of the California Garlic and Onion Research Board, said.

The garlic grown is a soft neck white garlic, and “the onions are bred specifically for high density-low water content, as the sole purpose is for dehydration,” he said. “We are not involved in growing dry bulb onions for storage.”

Ehn grew up on an irrigated farm in northern Colorado growing sugar beets, corn, pinto beans, alfalfa and grains. He graduated from Colorado State University in agronomy and earned a master’s degree in crop science.

Some 23,000 acres of processing onions and 24,000 acres of garlic are planted each year in California. Forty-five percent of the garlic is for processing with the rest for fresh market.

Ten types of garlic and many varieties within those types are grown.

Garlic can also be separated into hard neck and soft neck varieties; the kind you typically see in the grocery store are soft neck varieties.

“The most serious pest we face is a soil-borne disease called white rot (Sclerotium septivorum),” Ehn said. It affects both onions and garlic.

“This disease can live in the soil for over 20 years and once a field becomes infected, we can never go back,” he said. “This would result in crop failure.”

Growers also have problems with garlic rust and numerous other bacterial and fungal diseases.

Ehn said any good farmer can grow onions and garlic if they have the right soil type and weather. The California San Joaquin Valley has an ideal climate. Rainfall in winter and dry, hot conditions during the summer allow full bulb development and bright-white bulbs for market.

“There are major challenges facing California growers,” he said, “including our overly burdensome regulations, labor shortages — we’re still heavy hand-labor users — water availability and white rot.”

California growers are also constantly challenged by cheap Chinese fresh and dehydrated garlic showing up in the marketplace.

“The quality of Chinese garlic is much lower, they do contain heavy metal contaminants and they are priced well below our California product,” Ehn said.

Ehn has some advice for those considering farming as a career.

“Unless you were born on a farm and are part of a succession plan to keep farming, you probably can’t be a large scale farmer unless it’s small plot boutique, organic type of production,” he said. “However, there are tremendous opportunities in agriculture as we move head-first into technology with self-driven tractors, drones, irrigation monitoring devises, field mapping and creative marketing opportunities.

“In spite of the challenges, there’s still no place better in the world to grow high quality garlic than the San Joaquin Valley of California.”

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