Garlic Don’s 60th

Don Christopher wears a crisp, dark shirt embroidered with a 60-year medallion over the pocket. It commemorates a proud achievement for a business, but dresses a walking portal to history with a encyclopedic recall, a window into an how the global agricultural revolution underwent transformation during the second half of the 20th Century, and in Don’s case, transformed a community.
Canneries have left the South Valley and the “California-style” artichokes on supermarket shelves that once came from Castroville are now grown and bottled in Spain. Yet Gilroy continues as home to an industry that employs around 700 people and has the revenues of a publicly-traded technology company.
As a 22-year-old in 1956 who peeled off from the family prune ranch in South San Jose, Christopher didn’t exactly receive a red carpet welcome. An established garlic farmer sabotaged his first crop by advising him to water late in the season, which turned the bulbs brown. Another sold him inferior seed by hiding small cloves beneath the large ones.
Luckily, Christopher learned the ropes quickly after his rocky start. Today, the third generation family business sells a wide range of packaged products, including organic and roasted garlic, shallots and pearl onions. The skins are blown off with compressed air and the peeled cloves are sealed inside small bags for single use. McDonald’s buys chopped garlic in large plastic buckets for its Gilroy garlic fries, an introduction that has branded the community at golden arches and on the sides of buses near and far.
The economic impact of a third-generation family business goes beyond tax revenues and jobs, due to Don Christopher’s philanthropic inclinations. The Garlic Festival and the track and football complex at Christopher High are just two marquee projects. The low-key generosity can be seen each week at the Gilroy Rotary Club, where public safety heroes were recently honored for their service, and at the Christopher Ranch, where 900 community members and employees enjoyed a holiday lunch two weekends ago.
As 2016 draws to a close and a season of giving is upon us, the values of community spirit and shared prosperity are worth acknowledging and remembering.