Weather woes across the nation, Mexico help to boost onion prices

Grant Kitamura, general manager and part owner of Baker & Murakami Produce Co., Ontario, stands in an onion warehouse last week. Locally, prices for onions are on the rise. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell).

ONTARIO – Friday morning the huge Baker & Murakami Produce Co. warehouse was hopping.

Fork lifts darted from one stack of golden jumbo onions to another and then raced toward three loading bays. The bays led straight into empty semi-truck trailers backed up flush to the warehouse and the fork lifts slowed and then moved down the long, cave-like trailers to load onions.

Grant Kitamura, general manager and part owner of Baker & Murakami Produce Co., surveyed the work and noted that onion prices recently jumped.

Bad weather in other areas of the U.S. and Mexico created a vigorous market for Malheur County onions.

“It’s a ripple effect. People don’t realize that when something bad happens, something good happens somewhere else,” said Kitamura.

For most of January, the price of a 50-pound bag of yellow jumbo onions hovered between $7 and $8.

“It has improved dramatically from where it was 35 to 40 days ago. Jumbo yellows were previously down to four and four and a half,” said Kay Riley, manager of Snake River Produce in Nyssa.

Paul Skeen, president of the Malheur County Onion Growers Association, said the sluggish market started to rebound around Christmas.

“We are anticipating for it to move a little more,” said Skeen.

Onions are the biggest agriculture crop in Malheur County with an $80 million economic impact. The Treasure Valley is one of the top three onion producing areas in the U.S., next to California and Washington. In 2016 the Treasure Valley produced 1.5 billion pounds of onions.

Bad weather in Mexico hampered that nation’s onion crop.

“They are keeping onions on their domestic market and buying onions from us,” said Dwayne Fisher, vice president of sales at Champion Produce in Parma.

Typically, now is the time when Mexico exports onions into the U.S. Those onions compete directly with Treasure Valley onions and drive down market prices.

“Definitely with Mexico being late, that helps us,” said Kitamura. “Right now, Mexico is a net importer. There are quite a few onions being exported from the U.S. to Mexico.”

Kitamura said drought conditions in Europe also help local onion producers and packers.

“The Europeans were looking for onions last fall,” said Kitamura.

Stuart Reitz, county extension agent, said the 2018 onion crop was good. Reitz said he didn’t have data on the yield per acre yet for Malheur County.

“It went in in a timely manner and growing conditions were good. Overall, I think the yields were up,” said Reitz.

Reporter Pat Caldwell: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.