MADRAS - The same disease that allowed Oregon to carve out a niche supplying seed to California's huge garlic industry now threatens garlic growers in this state.
In the 1970s, California garlic growers decided they needed to get their seed garlic far from where they grew their main crop because of a soil-borne disease called white rot. They looked to central Oregon.
For more than 20 years now, central Oregon's Jefferson County has been the center of production for seed garlic for California, said Fred Crowe, superintendent of Oregon State University's Central Oregon Agricultural Research Center, near Madras. But white rot is starting to show up in central Oregon.
"We found three outbreaks in Jefferson County last year and four this year so far," said Crowe. "Considering that in the past 10 years we found only three outbreaks total, the past two years' outbreaks are frightening."
Crowe and his colleagues have been investigating ways to combat white rot, including flooding garlic fields to kill the disease. They are also experimenting with using garlic powder to "fool" dormant, soil-borne white rot spores into becoming metabolically active, "burning" themselves out in the soil before they infect a new crop of garlic.
White rot is so difficult to control that once an area has white rot disease organisms in the soil, growers usually have to move on to new fields.
"The California garlic growing center has moved from the San Francisco Bay area to Gilroy to the Salinas Valley and most recently to the San Joaquin Valley, mostly because of disease," said Crowe. "The industry is running scared."
Oregon is the second largest garlic producing state in the country, according to data from the OSU Extension Economic Information Office. In 1995 the farmgate value of Oregon-grown garlic was $8.9 million dollars, with 3,010 acres of the pungent bulb in cultivation.
"Oregon seed garlic is high quality and often gives California garlic growers more favorable growth and vigor than seed garlic grown in California," said Crowe.
"We just have to learn how to keep white rot from spreading," he said.
Americans are consuming and growing more garlic than ever. According to a December 1995 article in Smithsonian magazine, per capita garlic consumption in the United States rose from 0.6 pounds in 1975 to 1.6 pounds in 1994. The garlic industry estimates U.S. production is rising about 10 percent per year. National production in 1994 was 493 million pounds.
Oregon produced about 53 million pounds of garlic in 1995, according to OSU Extension Economic Information Office data. Most was grown in central Oregon, but Linn, Crook, Marion and other counties also produced some.
Besides being an essential flavor in many dishes, garlic is credited by some with lowering blood pressure, killing germs and driving away insects.
When people think of garlic, they usually picture the bulb, or cloves, of fresh garlic. But, according to Crowe, 80 to 90 percent of garlic produced in this country is dehydrated, distilled, juiced or chemically extracted as a flavor additive for various prepared foods such as luncheon meats, sausage, salad dressings, sauces, soup mixes, dog food, seasoning salts and garlic health supplements.
Garlic health supplements can be made relatively odorless by chemically or physically deactivating an enzyme called alliinase, explained Crowe.