Mother Nature dealt local onion producers a wet and rainy hand during the past few weeks creating a delay in the local harvest. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)

VALE – The annual onion harvest is behind schedule and area producers and packers are hoping Mother Nature will grant the county a respite from poor weather.

So far the weather hasn’t been very cooperative. Not only was the planting season in the spring delayed by rains but recent cool weather and storms have stranded millions of onions in local fields.

“We haven’t really started yet. We’re still behind, still lifting onions,” said Jeff Baer, a Vale-area onion producer.

In other places across the valley, the onion harvest is moving ahead but it lags several weeks behind normal.

“Normally at this point in time we are about 80 percent harvested and right now we are at 10 percent. We still have time so it is not a disaster, but it raises our risks being in this position,” said Shay Myers, owner-general manager of Owyhee Produce in Nyssa.

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Eddie Rodriguez, owner of Partners Produce – an onion packing firm in Payette – said his company is shipping onions but the pace is slow.

“Mother Nature hit growers hard. They got into the fields late and now it is wet on the backside of the harvest,” he said.

The delay may mean the harvest drags into late October, a time when producers must contend with frosts that will damage onions, said Grant Kitamura, general manager and part owner of the onion packing firm Baker & Murakami Produce Co. in Ontario.

“And your harvest window is smaller so it is going to be a bit hectic,” said Kitamura.

Rodriguez said he is “nervous” about the harvest.

“We just need to get this crop in by the third week of October,” he said.

Kitamura said he hopes the delay won’t impact overall quality of the harvest.

“A lot of times you do this and by some time in October you get this nice beautiful weather and it is warm and sunny,” he said.

Stuart Reitz, director of the Oregon State University Malheur Experiment Station, said producers and packers want to avoid storing onions that may be wet.

“You want them as dry as possible. If they stay wet there are potential problems with rot developing in storage,” said Reitz.

Myers said so far, the overall yield appears to be down from the 2018 harvest.

“Yields are down 30% from last year,” he said.

Yet that might not be as harsh a statistic as it appears at first glance.

That’s because, said Myers, the 2018 harvest was above average.

“So, we are really down about 10 to 15 percent over the five-year average,” said Myers.

Kitamura said the late harvest isn’t normal.

“It is not very often that Mother Nature has curtailed our crop,” said Kitamura.

The 2018 onion harvest produced excellent yields – between 40 and 45 tons per acre – because of moderate weather conditions.

The clock is ticking for area producers and onion packers, said Reitz.

“Most everybody likes to have stuff wrapped up by the first week of October. And there are still a lot of onions sitting on the ground as we speak,” said Reitz.

Reporter Pat Caldwell: pat@malheurenterprise.com or 542-473-3377. 

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