Onion harvest in Malheur County defies expectations

Tiffany Cruickshank, transportation and sales manager for Snake River Produce, looks over a stack of onions on a truck ready to ship last week in Nyssa. The local onion harvest began recently across the valley. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell).

NYSSA – Five months ago, Shay Myers, owner of Owyhee Produce, eyed the onion business from his facility in Parma and saw doom.

In June, Kay Riley, general manager of Snake River Produce in Nyssa delivered a grim message to his business partners: They might as well dig up half of the planted onions because there was no market.

The two local onion business executives surveyed a bleak future because of Covid-related shutdowns of schools and restaurants that put the counties’ biggest economic force – onions deliver an $80 million economic impact annually – in dire straits.

The onion apocalypse, though, didn’t happen and as the 2020 harvest swings into high gear the market outlook, while not perfect, is far better than projected.

“It did improve. I think the consumption has kind of leveled out and is slightly below normal nationwide,” said Myers.

Myers said the Covid pandemic changed the way Americans consume onions and transformed how the industry ships its products.

Myers said another “saving grace” was the impact of Covid on the Mexican onion industry, a key competitor to American producers.

“Retail has made up a lot through traditional channels like restaurants,” said Myers.

Riley said local producers are also helped because Mexico and California growers finished their harvests earlier than expected, “which kind of got them out of way and got us going on a good early start.”

Riley said some years both Mexico and California harvests can “drag on into late September.”

“When that happens, we don’t have much of a window to start on. Our crop was early and we were able to start early,” said Riley.

The local onion industry also captured a big boost from the federal government’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. The program was designed to buy and distribute agriculture products – including onions – for family-sized food boxes. Distributors such as Sysco Corp. create the food boxes and distribute them to food banks, faith-based organizations and non-profits to help those in need.

The program was set to furnish up to $16 billion, including $2.1 billion to help producers cover losses for specialty crops.

“The box program held our market up. It saved us thus far,” said Grant Kitamura, managing partner and executive officer of Baker & Murakami Produce Company, an onion packing firm in Ontario.

Kitamura said he hopes the program will be extended.

“They are buying mediums and mostly small jumbos and put them into three-pound bags,” said Kitamura.

Myers said the food box program “had a significant impact.”

“I am still a critic because I think there are much better ways it could have been done but it is better than doing nothing,” said Myers.

Kitamura said so far harvest yields are above normal and prices “are holding.”

Last week, the market price for a 50-pound bag of yellow jumbo onions stood between $6 and $7.

“This season the demand for onions has kind of been holding in there. Onion demand didn’t collapse like it did in the spring,” said Stuart Reitz, Malheur County extension agent.

The market isn’t back to normal, though.

“It is going OK. I wouldn’t say it has come back all the way. Demand is not near normal or where it should be,” said Mick Davie, a market reporter with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Idaho Falls.

Still, Reitz said overall the onion industry appears to be one of the few bright spots in agriculture in the wake of Covid.

 “The rest of the farm economy is not doing so great,” said Reitz.

Reitz said Malheur County onion producers planted about 12,500 acres of onions.

“Overall I think it is going pretty well. With all the smoke and haze it kept temperatures a little cool so the onion curing has been a little slower but it has been dry,” said Reitz.

Kitamura said the weather will play a crucial role as the harvest continues and he is optimistic.

“Harvest is not even halfway done and for the foreseeable future the weather will be excellent,” said Kitamura.

One major obstacle for local onion producers and packers continues to be availability of labor.

Myers said “you would not believe the struggles” with labor.

“We are all at the absolute bottom of the barrel, even worse than a year ago. That’s really the scariest part of what we do now,” said Myers.

Access to trucks – almost always a problem – limits the local onion industry.

“Traditionally, this time of year trucks are not near as a challenge. But our capacity on trucks has lessened,” said Tiffany Cruickshank, transportation manager for Snake River Produce.

Davie said the shortage so early in the harvest is uncommon.

“Actually, now is the time where usually it is a little easier because they can use different trucks and don’t have to use reefers,” said Davie.

Cruickshank said it was hard to pinpoint a specific reason for the shortage of trucks. It may be, she said, as simple as some producers began to harvest early and needed more trucks earlier than usual.

Cruickshank said demand could increase for refrigerated trucks.

“We have the potential of even more struggle because if you are limited to putting it on a reefer truck, the same group of local producers are competing for a small pot of trucks,” said Cruickshank.

The local area is shipping lots of onions this year compared to last year, said Davie.

 “Idaho and Oregon is 29% ahead of last year on shipments. At this time, last year 3,483 loads were shipped. This year to date we shipped 4,485. I don’t know why they are in such a hurry to push out,” said Davie.

Myers said the 2020 harvest is “not quite status quo.”

“In this world we are living, break-even is a good thing. It could be much worse,” said Myers.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected] or 541-235-1003.

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