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Central Valley onion crop looks good but a little late

by Rand Green | June 20, 2011

“The [Central California onion] season has been delayed because of weather, but it should be a good year,” Jon Hyatt, a salesperson for Jim Hyatt Produce Co. Inc. in West Sacramento, CA, told The Produce News June 7.

onionsIn the midst of the interview, a call came in to Mr. Hyatt from a grower. After resuming the interview, he told The Produce News that the grower said he was “struggling with the weather,” which had been both wet and cold. The harvest, which had just started, should already have been underway, but “They’re not going to be able to get all the trucks out until things turn around,” he said.

However, the 15-day AccuWeather forecast was projecting that things were finally turning around. After a spring with average temperatures well below normal and average rainfall well above normal, the forecast called for dry days and daily highs in the upper 80s or low to mid-90s, which is normal for the time of year.

If that forecast held, it would make not only melon growers but growers of many other commodities in California’s Central Valley, as well as their customers, very happy.

Mr. Hyatt expects good markets for Central California onions this season but not the high prices of a year ago. “Last year was a tremendously high market,” he said. This year, “there should be plenty of onions around. It should be a promotable item for the summer.”

“With the recent cool weather, it has pushed things back a bit,” said Gurdeep S. Billan, director of sales for Double D Farms in Coalinga, CA. The company’s own onions will start earlier than usual because of changes in planting schedules and farming practices from prior years, but not as early as they might have been if the weather had been warmer.

Acreage for the industry should be similar to last year, according to Mike Smythe, a salesperson at Telesis Onion Co. Inc. in Five Points, CA. The acreage at Telesis is the same as last year, and “from what I understand, I don’t think anyone has cut back this year,” he said.

“At the moment, I think [growers in Central California] are feeling pretty positive about the market they are coming into,” Wayne Mininger, executive vice president of the National Onion Association in Greeley, CO, said June 7. “The glut that was in play throughout the winter and early to mid-spring has worked its way through the system pretty well, and now the situation is pretty positive again.”

Although the crop is on the late side getting started, “I think [growers] are fairly happy with their stands and the way the crop has grown” in terms of the health of the plants, Mr. Mininger continued. “I think they feel pretty positive that the national onion markets will be favorable to them.” The demand situation should be good at the outset, and “it should remain that way throughout a fair portion of the summer.”

It is “difficult in the onion industry to read the tea leaves too far out in front,” he said. “But it is looking favorable to initiate their season and favorable as the summer progresses here. And I think they are pretty happy with their crop and their prospects. I am not hearing anything negative about the crop. I think the quality and size and marketing opportunities are going to be favorable.”

The Central Valley of California, also known as the San Joaquin Valley, is one of the two major areas that will be in play for onions in the United States during the summer months, the other being New Mexico, Mr. Mininger noted. “They are the dominant players right now, and both of those areas had cold periods throughout the winter and late spring, so they are coming into situations where their crop volume is going to relate I think quite favorably to the demand out there.”

Other producing areas that will begin harvesting during the summer are the Walla Walla area in Washington and the Lower Columbia Basin in late June, followed by Idaho-Eastern Oregon in August. But “for the next 30 days or more, the supply is going to be primarily in the hands of Central California and New Mexico,” and “they don’t anticipate the volume being anything burdensome to the market for a while.”

For the last several seasons, one of the major issues facing many West Side growers has been a shortage of water due to an ongoing drought and reduced state and federal water allotments for agriculture. With an unusually wet winter and spring this year, however, water allotments have been increased to 75 percent of contract, and it has been wet enough that growers have not had to use much of their allotment so far.

This year, a shortage of water has not been a problem, said Mr. Smythe. Rather, the problem has been “too much” water at times.