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Texas onion acreage leaps, crop escapes winter damage

by Chip Carter | March 09, 2011

Acreage is up, the market is solid and Texas onion growers are expecting a banner 2011 crop, the beginnings of which are already being harvested. Volume ramped up steadily through the first half of March and supplies will continue in force through April.

texas onions photo
Texas onions awaiting shipment on the dock at the McAllen Produce Terminal Market in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. (Photo by Chip Carter)
Last year, Texas farmers planted 11,313 acres of red, white and yellow onions in the Lone Star State, 8,782 in the Lower Valley and Coastal Bend area sand 2,581 in the Laredo and Winter Garden area. This year that total is up to 13,064 — 10,237 in the Lower Valley and 2,827 in Winter Garden. The majority of all Texas onion acreage (10,037 acres) is devoted to the sweet yellow variety. The totals do not include acreage from U.S.-owned farms across the border in northern Mexico or partner organizations in that country that ship most of their product through Texas, volume which is often accounted for in Texas onion production totals.

“We’re sitting here with about 500 acres more or less, which is up about 100 acres, so it sounds like we’re about where the whole deal is,” said Curtis DeBerry of Progreso Produce Ltd. in Boerne, TX. “And the yields will be even higher so it will be a bigger crop.”

Don Ed Holmes of The Onion House in Weslaco, TX, said, “We’re up about 10 percent in acreage. Any time you have a $30 or $40 market like you had last year, these growers want to try it again. It’s kind of hard to tell them no. The movement so far has been fantastic and that’s one of the reasons we’ve had a good market and hopefully we can maintain that.”

The cold that battered some Texas crops left onions relatively unscathed, though there still remains a possibility that part of the young, middle or late crop c

ould bolt and go to seed any time between now and April 15. In a worst-case scenario, a Texas grower might lose 10 percent of this year’s stand to bolting.

“We’re not seeing any damage at all,” Mr. Holmes told The Produce News Feb. 28. “We wouldn’t have greeted some small adversity negatively — we were almost hoping to lose a little of this crop to take a little of the volume off, but it doesn’t look like at this point the freeze did anything. It did, however, set us back about two weeks. I think this would have been one of the few years when Texas would have had onions in February. What that’s done to some extent is let some of this Mexican product go ahead and get gone so there’s less to compete with. It actually probably helped a little bit. The quality is phenomenal and the Texas crop looks like the yields are going to be phenomenal.”

While most growers and agriculture officials said they do not know how the crop will size up, Mr. DeBerry believes there will “definitely be ample supplies, and looks like good size. They’re going to be big, lots of heavy jumbos; the mediums will be the tightest.”

A very dry fall meant Texas growers had more days to set out seedlings, since they lost little production time to rain. Last year’s banner season for sweet onions ate into the storage crop and the market remained solid throughout, prompting most growers to plant more acreage this year. And the specter of Mexican drug cartels also may have pushed Texas farmers to increase their plantings, as coffee shop talk in late 2010 speculated that the threat of violence could prevent a Mexican onion crop from coming to market this season.

“I’d say there were three factors in the acreage increase, and I’m not trying to emphasize one over another,” said Juan Anciso, associate professor and vegetable specialist with the Texas Agrilife Extension Service in Weslaco. “One, we had good planting weather all across the state, certainly in the Rio Grande Valley and the Winter Garden — it’s a little abnormal to have the whole month of October dry. Two, last year’s market was high, so that lingers in people’s mind’s and there’s a possibility that some will try to make a killing this year. And before the planting, at that point in time with the violence in Mexico, at least in the coffee shop it made sense that Mexico [would] not be a player. I’m not saying the cartels are stopping the shipping of onions, or there are no onions in Mexico; there’s just the general impression that it may be factor.”

Onions are Texas’ leading vegetable crop “historically, and we continue to rank in onion production right near the top of the states,” said John McClung, president of the Texas Produce Association. “And we import a lot from Mexico. Almost all of those imports are grown with American dollars to American specifications with the intent of shipping to the United States. Those onions happen to be grown on the other side of the river, but they’re still Texas onions.”

Obviously the crop from northern Mexico does not contribute to overall acreage in the Texas onion market order. Regardless, the Mexican crop comes on a bit before the one grown in Texas, and “we’ll be out of the Mexican season when we start harvesting the first week of March,” Mr. McClung said.

Earlier this year there was much debate about whether there would even be an onion crop grown in Mexico, or at least one deliverable to the United States.

“Early on there were rumors there wouldn’t be onions in Mexico,” Mr. DeBerry said, adding he believes that thought contributed to the increase in acreage. But, “I think it’s a combination of a good market, a good planting season, there are a few more players in the deal this year than there were last, so there’s not one major factor but three or four combining to make it a pretty good increase.”

Mr. McClung still takes exception to the thought that the threat of violence in Mexico contributed to the increase in acreage. “I will simply say that the association and the marketing order for onions have no evidence that acreage increases in the United States have anything to do with upheaval in Mexico, and frankly, no one has a … bit of evidence that that is the case.”

Mr. McClung said that Texas farmers planted more onions this year simply because “Business is better for Texas growers. If things got real ugly in some fashion with Mexico, that could have an impact, but I see nothing at this point to indicate that will be the case. Our guys in the United States and Mexico have figured out ways to deal with and account for the problems in Mexico. There are partnerships in place there to make sure we get that produce over here.”

Dr. Anciso concurred that cartel violence has yet to affect Texas agriculture, but he said planning for the possibility must be part of the state’s equation moving forward.

“Cartel violence is unquantifiable, and that is part of the reason we planted more,” he said. “If people at the coffee shop are saying violence is going to mean no onions from Mexico, you plant more. It’s not based on facts, it’s based on perceptions. That’s why we rolled out a lot of seeds, that part is a fact. That can get misconstrued and make it sound like we know Mexico has problems. No, no, no. If we had a crystal ball and knew how many onions there were going to be it would be one thing, but we don’t.”

Regardless of why there will be more onions grown in Texas this year, it is indisputable that this year’s crop is shaping up nicely. Neither Mr. McClung nor Dr. Anciso have seen signs of bolting in their travels through the Texas production areas. Mr. DeBerry said, “There probably wasn’t even a one percent plant population loss” due to the cold, and he had seen no sign of bolting in his crop through Feb. 28.

“Definitely the crop looks excellent right now so we’ll have good quality,” Mr. DeBerry said. “We’re in a good window coming in after the peak of Mexico, and I do think what crop is in Mexico is on the earlier than normal side by a couple of weeks and that will hopefully make for a smoother transition.”

Added Mr. McClung, “I see no reason for pessimism. We are looking at a good yield on a good crop.”

“At this point in time I’d say we’re pretty much on pace for a good crop, good yields, we have good stands because October was dry and for the most part the weather has been dry this entire season, which is ideal,” Dr. Anciso summed up.