Good onion harvest meets weak prices for area farmers

By Pat Caldwell

The Enterprise

VALE – Local growers produced bigger onions this season but prices for the county’s biggest commodity are down.

Farmers and some packing firms also faced difficulty finding enough workers.

“Prices are terrible,” said Grant Kitamura of Murakami Produce Company, an onion-packing firm in Ontario.

Murakami said local yields were about average but area onion farmers could lose money if the prices for the crop stay where they stand now.

Murakami said, for example, a 50-pound bag of onions not placed in permanent storage currently sells for about $6. Once an onion crop enters storage, he said, additional costs – such as for power – boost the cost of that bag to $6.50. At the same time, he said, the selling price for that bag is between $3 and $4.

The onion market, he said, “is lousy — very little return for the farmer.”

Nyssa onion producer Paul Skeen echoed Murakami’s sentiments regarding prices.

“Most of the time it was a good, clear harvest. I think we had a nice crop that was a little bigger than normal. The problem we got right now is the prices. The cost of what they are selling them for is barely covering the packing charge with zero back for the grower,” Skeen said.

Onions are the chief economic engine for Malheur County, generating between $80 and $90 million dollars a year for the region. The main onion variety produced in the county is Spanish Sweets and usually prove to be beneficial because they can be stored longer.

The local onions though are sold on the open commodities market, which means prices can fluctuate significantly. Most area onion farmer own or rent storage space for their product in a marketing effort. Onions from Malheur County are sold across the nation and around the globe. The market, Murakami said, operates on simple principles.

“We are purely supply and demand. What we grow we have to sell this season,” he said.

The onion season begins with the fall harvest but stretches into March or April of the following year as stored product is sold as prices climb and to meet market demand.

One challenge Murakami said his organization faced during the harvest was finding enough employees, which impacted the length of the season.

“For us the most serious problem was lack of labor. It took longer, a lot longer, then we’d like,” he said.

Stuart Reitz, Malheur County/OSU Extension cropping systems agent, said availability of labor remains an ongoing challenge for many producers.

“Not enough labor has been one of those serious bug-a-boos. Some growers are working overtime,” he said.

Reitz said climate – plus ample water – this season helped fuel larger onions than in the past.

“We had pretty good growing conditions during most of the summer. We didn’t have any intense heat. Most of the irrigation districts had a full allotment of weather. So, the onions came out at the larger end of the spectrum,” he said.

Another reason, he said, for the onion size growth was there was not as many plants per acre.

“So they had a little more space to grow,” he said.

Reitz said the onion harvest averaged about 45 tons per acre in the county. In terms of total acreage, more onions were in the ground this year than 2015. In 2015, onion producers sowed 9,314 acres in Malheur County. This year farmers devoted 10,778 acres to the crop.

Reitz also noted onion prices are down.

“It looks like one of those break-even years,” he said.

Yet there is some hope for a price rebound, Reitz said.

“It is still kind of early in the season. If things turn around they (producers) could make a whole lot of money,” he said.

Skeen, who is also the president of the Malheur County Onion Growers Association, said he is worried that area onion producers are already giving up on the 2016 crop in terms of making money or breaking even.

“I have heard growers say ‘I do not want to have to dump them at the end.’ It is like we are giving up on this season already. If we are going to give up, let’s give up at the end,” he said.