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IN SEASON

The Aroma of El Nino

September 23, 1998|RUSS PARSONS

Garlic, the breath of life for some people, is getting more precious.

Because of an uncommon plant disease brought about by El Nino weather conditions, as much as 40% of this year's California garlic harvest has been lost. Given that this state produces 90% of the garlic in the country, that's a mighty hit.

As a result, wholesale prices for ordinary white garlic are 30% higher than last year, running $1.40 a pound at the Los Angeles produce market.

To overcome the shortage, Christopher Ranch, which produces roughly a third of the garlic grown in the United States, has purchased a produce company that contracts with garlic growers in Mexico and South America.

"We're making a very strong commitment to our major customer base to have garlic this winter," says Patsy Ross, marketing director of Christopher Ranch. "It may not be the exact size they want and it may not be the price they want, but we will have it."

The culprit is a plant disease called rust, which is aggravated by moist growing conditions. It attacks the developing plant, turning it an orange-red color. It either kills the plant outright or results in cloves so small they are unusable.

"We used to say that you can never water garlic too much," says Ross. "I guess we found out you can. There was just too much water, and it never drained. The plants just sat in the water as it rained day after day. They never did dry out."

Because of that moisture, there are other problems showing up in garlic as well, most notably mildew. A black, dusty fungus, mildew doesn't kill the plant, but it does affect the health of the clove.

"Garlic probably is not going to hold up as well this year as it normally does," says Ross. "Normally you look for firm bulbs and white skins, but finding those this year might be more of a challenge. You're going to need to be a little more flexible on your standards."

FARMERS' MARKET REPORT

At the Saturday morning farmers' market in the parking lot of the Irvine Marketplace, the Scrimshaw Brothers from near Lake Elsinore heralded the beginning of fall with an incredibly colorful display of winter squash. Bright orange golden Hubbard and dark green Hubbard--gnarled, warty cousins--were stacked side by side with pumpkins and squashes: striped turban, acorn, tan butternut, yellow spaghetti and huge orange banana.

In other stands, summer was still hanging on, as James Ukegawa from Oceanside had golden-fleshed watermelons and Japanese, beefsteak, tango, Roma and brandywine tomatoes. And Barney Koral from North County had fresh figs, sapote, dates and passion fruit.

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