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Despite lower volume, Central California still a major onion player

by Brian Gaylord | June 16, 2010
Central California's summer non-storage onion production total for 2009 was slightly more than 7.3 million fiftyweight bags, down from slightly more than 8.2 million fiftyweight bags in 2008.

The fiftyweight bag tally for 2007 was more than 8.8 million fiftyweight bags, said Wayne Mininger, executive vice president of the National Onion Association.

The sliding production totals correspond with a drop in onion acreage under production. In 2009, Central California had 6,500 acres in production, compared with 7,800 acres in 2008 and 8,800 acres in 2007.

Summer non-storage onion production is the only one of three segments of onion production in play in Central California. Elsewhere in the state there is spring onion production and late summer-fall onion storage.

California's spring and summer deals immediately go the market and the National Onion Association doesn't try to estimate production volume in advance of the harvest, Mr. Mininger told The Produce News June 8.

More than 90 percent of the state's summer non-storage deal takes place in the San Joaquin Valley, with contributions from the Santa Clara, Santa Maria and Salinas valleys. Even with the recent drop in production, the large supplies generated from the San Joaquin Valley account for more than 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 spring onion deal mostly takes place in the Imperial and Coachella valleys. The California spring onion season starts around mid-April with onions from 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 that starts around late May or early June. The San Joaquin onion harvest begins in Bakersfield, CA, 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.

California's fall storage onion crop is grown in Antelope Valley.

Growers in the San Joaquin Valley have been hit hard by water shortages and restrictions. But that doesn't tell the whole story on recent declining onion production.

"There's a natural ebb and flow of supply and demand," Mr. Mininger said. "They [growers] increase production when they're doing well and cut back a bit when they're not doing so well."

Telesis Onion Co. is headquartered in Five Points, CA, in the San Joaquin Valley, about 20 minutes north of Huron, CA. Telesis grows its onions within a 50-mile radius of Five Points. Mike Smythe, sales manager for Five Points, told The Produce News June 8 that the company's onion harvest was off to a "slow and painful start" with "a lot of medium yellow onions early."

"The size will get back to normal, but it's hard to get caught back up," Mr. Smythe said. The company grows more yellow onions than red and white onions combined.

"We'll have more reds this year than we've had in past acreage," Mr. Smythe said. "That reflects the strength of our foodservice base."

About 80 percent of Telesis' business is with foodservice; the remaining 20 percent is with the terminal markets.

Salinas, CA-based Tanimura & Antle is in its third year of its sweet red Italian onions - Artisan Reds - a proprietary onion variety originally from Italy. T&A's California onion harvest starts in Bakersfield and moves through Huron and Firebaugh and then onto Hollister and nearby Salinas.

Rick Antle, T&A's chief executive officer, told The Produce News June 8 that the company's California onion harvest started the week of June 6 and will move through the various locations in about 60 days. The company's Central California onion acreage is "about the same" as last year, Mr. Antle said.

"It was a cold spring in the [San Joaquin] valley, but we're back to nice weather," Mr. Antle said. He said that so far the region is seeing an "excellent crop with excellent size."

Having enough water for its onion crop won't be a problem this year, Mr. Antle said.

"We can supplement service water with well water," Mr. Antle said.