Cancel OK

Farewell to garlic king Don Christopher


I remember meeting Don Christopher, the garlic mogul, once. But it was only a handshake 35 years ago.

Christopher died on December 12 at the age of 88.

By the end of his life, his Gilroy, CA, ranch was growing 100 million pounds of garlic a year.

Christopher’s life exemplifies some striking facts about American agriculture. He founded Christopher Ranch on 10 acres in 1956 with a loan from his father.

richard smoley produce blueprints

By the 1980s, the ranch was growing 10 million pounds of garlic.

This story, which is not unusual, points up the contrast between agriculture as it is today versus public preconceptions.

The latter imagine agriculture as a process of helpless small farmers swallowed up by corporate conglomerations. (To be fair, ag is quite happy to use this beleaguered family farmer image when it suits its interests.)

But Christopher seems to me exemplary of a more typical story: big farms are often family farms. Just very successful ones. And of course they are in a minority. The march of agriculture is in many ways a story of successful farmers growing by buying out unsuccessful small ones.

And the Christopher Ranch BB #:112573 is an immense success.

Christopher’s later years were marred by some misfortunes for his operation. In 2018, Netflix issued a series on agriculture. Its title—Rotten—reveals the attitude with which it was made.

One episode covered the Christopher  Ranch—and not in a good way. It focused on claims that Christopher was importing Chinese garlic and selling it under its own label (among other offenses).

The ranch vehemently denied these accusations, refuting them point by point. It wanted the episode removed, but this didn’t happen. The series is still available on Netflix.

The second misfortune was far more tragic—a 2019 shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival that left 3 people dead and a dozen injured.

Christopher had been one of the original organizers of the festival, which started in 1979.

The event never recovered from the shooting. The outbreak of the Covid pandemic in 2020 forced the cancellation of the event, and a 2021 drive-through festival was not successful. The city of Gilroy (understandably) imposed such stiff insurance requirements that the festival had no choice but to close.

Despite these misfortunes, the Christopher Ranch is prospering under family management.

Christopher was well regarded in the community and was involved in many philanthropic endeavors, including funding local schools and providing hundreds of scholarships. The Christopher Family Foundation, founded in 2019, supports youth educational programs.

If Christopher is an exemplar of big agribusiness, the nation can hope that there are many more like him.


Richard Smoley, contributing editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published 12 books.