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California holds its own as a major onion player

by Brian Gaylord | April 04, 2010
California has spring, summer and storage onions. Taken all together, the state has the third-largest onion acreage in the nation, behind only the Idaho/eastern Oregon area and the Columbia Basin in the Pacific Northwest.

Wayne Mininger, executive vice president of the National Onion Association, told The Produce News that dehydrated onions are not included in these acreage totals. If they were, California would rank No. 1 in onion production, he said.

Idaho/eastern Oregon is a storage deal with no spring or summer deals. The Columbia Basin has summer and storage deals but no spring deal.

California's spring deal is planted in the fall, the summer deal is planted in winter and early spring, and the storage onions are planted in the spring and harvested in the fall.

California's spring onion deal takes place mostly in the Imperial and Coachella valleys.

The Santa Maria and Oxnard areas "weigh in" on California's spring onion deal, Mr. Mininger said.

More than 90 percent of the state's summer deal takes place in the San Joaquin Valley, with contributions primarily from the Santa Clara, Santa Maria and Salinas valleys.

The large supplies generated from the San Joaquin Valley typically account for somewhere around 50 percent of the nation's fresh supply. The Central California summer onion deal is focused on fresh onions; other areas of the country have stronger storage supplies.

Onions are grown in more than 20 states, literally border to border and coast to coast.

California's late summer-fall storage onion crop is grown in the Antelope Valley and in the Salinas Valley.

The California spring onion season starts around mid-April with onions out of the Imperial Valley in the state's southern desert region. That deal typically runs about six weeks, leading into the San Joaquin Valley onion harvest, which starts around late May or early June. The San Joaquin onion harvest begins around Bakersfield at the southern end of the valley and moves northward to the west side of the central San Joaquin Valley. The harvest generally continues into late August or early September in the San Joaquin Valley.

In California's spring 2009 onion deal, the state had 6,200 acres of onions with 5.2 million fiftyweight bags harvested. This compares with the state's 6,700 acres and nearly 5.7 million fiftyweight bags harvested in 2008, according to Mr. Mininger. The decline is evidenced further when compared with the state's 2007 spring onion deal, which had 6,900 acres with 6 million fiftyweight bags harvested.

In California's summer non-storage 2009 onion deal, the state had 6,500 acres of onions with 7.3 million fiftyweight bags harvested, a significant drop from 2008, when there were 7,800 acres with 8.2 million fiftyweight bags harvested. In 2007, the state had 8,000 acres of onions with 8.8 million fiftyweight bags harvested.

California's decline in summer non-storage onion production can be somewhat attributed to a lack of available water. In the San Joaquin Valley, it can be difficult for growers to "find land with enough water," Mr. Mininger said.

While overall production numbers are down, growers -- especially in the San Joaquin Valley -- are getting better yields. The San Joaquin Valley is the state's most sophisticated area for growing onions. As varieties have evolved, Central California onion growers are in the thick of the latest work in plant nutrient technology, irrigation technology and protecting the crop from weeds and pests.

California's production in recent years has risen in its late summer/fall storage onions. In 2009, the state had 4,350 acres of onions with 4.9 million fiftyweight bags harvested compared with 4,100 acres with 4.7 million fiftyweight bags harvested in 2008 and 4,370 acres with 4.6 million fiftyweight bags harvested in 2007.

Mr. Mininger said that the long-term national trend for onion demand is positive. "The onion industry is growing larger incrementally," he said. Trends in both per capita consumption and population growth favor onions. As a group, Latinos are significant consumers of onions, he said.

Brenda Haught, sales and commodities manager for Porterville, CA-based Homegrown Organic Farms, said that Homegrown doesn't foresee a shortage of water for its onions and that its onion acreage in the southern San Joaquin Valley benefits from access to federal water, state water and well water. Homegrown Organic Farms grows its onions in the Lamont, CA, area in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

Ms. Haught told The Produce News March 23 that Homegrown had just planted its summer onion crop but was expecting a cold spell the week of March 29. The harvest window for the company's summer fresh onion crop runs from June through August. Homegrown's onions planted in April will be harvested in August and September for storage. The company will store onions until November or December.

"The bigger part of our [onion] program is storage," Ms. Haught said.

Homegrown markets only organic items and has been handling organic onions for more than a decade. For onion labels, the company uses "Frank Lee Organics" and "Homegrown Organic Farms." The "Homegrown Organic Farms" label for onions was developed last year. There's no quality distinction between the two labels, Ms. Haught said.

Homegrown is a full-line seasonal shipper of organic items throughout the United States as well as to Canada, Mexico, the Pacific Rim and Europe. The company is perhaps best known for its tree fruit as well as a variety of citrus crops and blueberries.

Homegrown is in an enviable position compared with some of its competitors in organic onions: Canada has banned produce that is grown using sodium nitrate from coming into the country. Homegrown doesn't use sodium nitrate, Ms. Haught said. As a result, the company is "seeing increased demand" from Canada for its onions, she said.

Ms. Haught said that 50 percent of the company's onion crop consists of medium-sized onions, 30 percent are jumbo onions and 20 percent are small onions. The small onions go to foodservice, she said.

Homegrown's three-pound medium onion bag is best for retailers, she added. The company also offers 50-pound bulk jumbo yellow onions for bulk displays at retail.

Five Points, CA-based Telesis Onion Co. has a summer non-storage fresh onion deal -- it does not have a spring harvest. The company grows red, white and yellow onions.

Telesis' onion harvest runs from June through around mid-September for all three varieties. Telesis grows its product in the Five Points area of California, about 20 minutes north of Huron.

The company's overall onion acreage is up about 10 percent, according to Telesis Sales Manager Mike Smythe.

The company works mostly with foodservice but handles some retail and wholesale accounts as well; and it ships nationally. Telesis sells most of its onions f.o.b.

Several years ago the company introduced the "Telesis Gold" label for its premium yellow onions. The company also has "Telesis," "Gold Creek," "Silver Creek," "Big Telesis" and "Panoche Creek" labels.

New this year for Telesis will be an automated bagging and palletizer made by Byron Nelson Automation, to be installed in Telesis' packingshed in April. The machine will incorporate Telesis' box machine. The bagging and palletizer system requires less labor and gives a better presentation on a pallet and a better pack of onions, Mr. Smythe said.