By Pat Caldwell
ONTARIO — A seemingly inconspicuous event in Malheur County this week attracts visitors and industry experts from around the world.
The Malheur Experiment Station’s Onion Variety Day – held last Tuesday – may be under the community radar but for the global onion industry, it is a big deal.
The program features 40 varieties of onions.
“It is kind of a good way for growers and everyone in the industry to see a side-by-side comparisons of the different varieties,” said Stuart Reitz, the experiment station’s cropping analyst. Seed companies give the experiment station various onion varieties to test in a real-world growing environment. The station then grows the seeds in a controlled environment and assesses how the vegetables do in the local climate.
The onion day event provides seed producers and local farmers an up-close opportunity to evaluate how each onion variety performs.
The station doesn’t receive any money from seed firms for the trials. Because Malheur County’s climate is similar to other areas – such as South America and northern China – how a specific onion grows here is crucial for firms eager to sell their products overseas.
“We had people last year from Japan, South America and we typically have growers from Washington and the Columbia Basin,” said Reitz.
The event is a popular one in the seed industry, said Clint Shock, experiment station director.
“There are people who come from Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, some from New Zealand and sometimes China,” said Shock.
Onions are typically classified as either “long-day” or “short-day,” based on the length of time it takes to form the bulb of the vegetable.
Local farmers grow the Spanish Sweet variety, which is a long-day onion. These types of onions perform well in Malheur County’s climate.
They also grow well in places like South America and northern China.
Onions are big money in Malheur County.
“Onions are kind of an important component to the economy here and it is kind of important for growers to be able to evaluate what things they should consider planting next year,” said Reitz.
Typically, depending on the market, the local onion industry generates between $60 and $80 million each year.
Shock said between 120 to 150 people usually attend the event.
Not everyone arrives just to look at onions, though.
“Others come for other purposes. They are not so much interested in the varieties but they want to talk about the harvest, irrigation and other practices,” said Shock.
The onion trials are planted near the field station on a broad, flat plain. Each onion variety occupies a specific space in four rows.
Reitz said the event is important for seed producers.
“It helps them to decide, especially if they have some new line coming, whether that is a variety that would do well in this environment and whether they should proceed to market it,” said Reitz.
Why is the station’s onion experiment so important?
“They (the trials) are done under replicated conditions so all the data on yield and quality can be statistically compared. It is a totally unbiased trial,” said Reitz.
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