A combination of adverse weather conditions in the spring and summer conspired to impact the total yield of onions locally. (The Enterprise/PAT CALDWELL).
VALE – A dismal blend of high summer temperatures, smoke and a windy spring stymied the local onion harvest as local producers are seeing lower yields per acre than in the past.
The harsh weather conditions mean the area’s $80 million onion industry will most likely take a hit this year.
Yields “are down significantly,” said Eddie Rodriguez, fresh pack sales director for Partners Produce in Payette.
Last year, the average onion yield per field in Malheur County was 42 tons, or 840 hundred weight (cwt) per acre. While 2021 harvest statistics won’t be available for a while, this year’s harvest doesn’t look like it will shape up with the same yields as 2020.
Factors that hurt the harvest began in the spring when windy conditions hampered the application of pesticides and herbicides for many producers. That meant weeds and onion pests gained an advantage, and then a blistering heat wave in the summer hammered fields across the valley.
Grant Kitamura, the general manager of the onion packing facility Baker & Murakami Produce Co., said the weather challenges this year is something he’s never seen before.
He said the onion harvest will produce about “half of what we’d normally have in terms of volume.”
“That’s not good for production or for marketing. Just not good,” he said.
The long heat wave, said Rodriguez, was the key factor for this year’s harvest.
“We had those 32 days of over 100 degrees and it really did a number on this crop,” he said.
Rodriguez said the quality of the crop is good.
“But size will be off significantly,” he said.
In the onion business, size matters and Mother Nature’s fickle nature this year means there will be more smaller onions. Most of the onion production locally is geared toward restaurants where jumbo or colossal onions are prized.
Medium-sized onions don’t fetch as high price but lower yields also translate into smaller onion sizes.
“When you get a reduction in yield you get a shift in the size profile. So, instead of 10 percent or less of mediums, some of the area (fields) are as high as 30 percent. That’s that many more onions you are not getting a good price for,” said Kitamura.
Jumbo-sized onions are at a premium right now which, short term, means prices are high.
Rodriguez said a 50-pound bag of jumbos is going for $15.
“Typically, we see $5 or $6 a bag,” he said.
Rodriguez said the high prices are “good in a sense.”
“But our yields are cut in half so we have less to sell by half,” he said. “Some of our customers demand we have onions year-around for our processing side of the business and I don’t think we will get year-around.”
Kitamura said the high price of jumbo onions “won’t fill the void.”
Rodriguez said higher production costs are also a crucial factor for area producers.
“Labor (costs) have been significant. We are paying as high as $20 an hour. Last year our high-end guys were at $14 an hour,” said Rodriguez.
A scarcity of labor also made an impact in the spring, said Rodriguez.
“A lot of growers couldn’t get weeding crews because of the labor shortage. So, onions had a lot of pressure and competition within fields to establish a good crop,” said Rodriguez.
Shay Myers, owner-general manager of Owyhee Produce in Nyssa, said costs are climbing across the board.
“Prices on pallets are up 100 to 150 percent. Onion bags are closer to 30 percent, so every package that onions go into costs a dime more than it did last year. Pallet wrap has doubled in price,” said Myers.
Myers said one “could easily argue” that production costs are up 40%.
“We are in the break-even territory,” he said.
Transportation costs continue to climb, said Myers.
“Shipping here to Atlanta or New York, it’s probably up another 30 or 40 percent from last year. But pre-pandemic, our numbers are up 80 percent,” said Myers.
Stuart Reitz, Malheur County extension agent, said the local onion harvest conditions are mirrored elsewhere.
“The Columbia Basin had bad growing conditions,” he said.
Other local crops also suffered from the heat, said Reitz.
“Wheat harvest was pretty bad. Yields were 20 to 25 percent below normal and, again, it was the heat,” he said.
News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]
EXCELLENCE IN JOURNALISM - Available for $5 a month. Subscribe to the digital service of the Enterprise and get the very best in local journalism. We report with care, attention to accuracy, and an unwavering devotion to fairness. Get the kind of news you’ve been looking for - day in and day out from the Enterprise.