Just weeks after re-establishing himself in the Treasure Valley and taking on the role of sales/operations manager for Four Rivers Onion Packing in Weiser, ID, Ken Stewart provided The Produce News with a crop update for the longtime Idaho operation now under ownership of Tracy Fowler.
Fowler purchased Four Rivers Packing from Randy and Jan Smith and Dennis and Debra Ujiiye in mid-June, and Stewart joined the team in late July. The company name was modified to include the word “Onion.”
Both Fowler and Stewart have extensive background in onions, and both men were previously affiliated with L&M Cos. Stewart was also sales manager at Fort Boise Produce in Parma for a number of years.
While many Treasure Valley sheds got off to an early season this year, Four Rivers started “right on average,” Stewart said. He added that the decision to start shipping early onions on Aug. 24 was to allow the onions additional sizing time in the field.
“We could’ve started 10 days to two weeks earlier,” Stewart said in late August. “But we decided to let the onions size up the skin to get pretty. Our onions sized really well, and we’re seeing lots of 3.5-inch jumbos. We’ve had great size since we started shipping.”
He said storage was scheduled to start the second week of September, and harvest will wrap up early to mid-October. Most of the onions are packed in 50-pound sacks.
“We’re selling colossal and jumbos as well as some medium yellows,” he added. “We don’t have very many super colossal now, but we will have more of them as the onions continue to come in.”
“Our yields are normal, and our overall quality is really, seriously excellent,” he said.
Stewart said the crop is 80 percent yellow, 15 percent red and 5 percent white, which is a common split in the Valley. However, he said, “The demand for reds is growing. Right now the onion market overall is good, and prices are holding stable for the larger size.”
Water has been an issue in the Treasure Valley, with growers repositioning fields to mitigate irrigation shortfalls. Stewart said Four Rivers “did fine this year, but we do need a good snowpack this winter,” he said.
Four Rivers is “concentrating on putting up a quality pack,” Stewart said. The majority of sales are to foodservice and distributors.
At the time of the purchase of Four Rivers, Fowler said he did not anticipate changes in the operating procedure at the main facility, which consists of eight buildings on 11 acres. Three additional storage buildings are located nearby. Stewart said the operation is GAP-certified through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The facility packs for a base of several growers who have supplied the plant for a number of years. Randy and Jan Smith have stayed to ensure a smooth transition. Stewart’s wife, Jan, is also part of the administrative team.
“We are transitioning really will with Randy and Jan, and if we can keep Randy out of the fishing holes, we’ll have him for the season,” Stewart said.
Central Produce Distributors Inc., headquartered in Payette, ID, plans to market an onion volume that is on par with last year’s crop. Sales Manager Dan Phillips said production acreage for the grower-owned company has remained stable, and he characterized overall activity as “status quo.”
The company’s growers produce the Vaquero, Pandero and Granero onion varieties. Yellows comprise 85 percent of the company’s overall pack. Reds and whites round out the balance.
“We had a little heat this summer,” he told The Produce News. “July was hot. August was below normal. We started three weeks earlier than normal.” While early product sizing was smaller owing to hot weather, Phillips expects a return to a more normal distribution of sizes as the harvest continues due to moderating temperatures.
As is true elsewhere, Treasure Valley onion growers continue to grapple with water issues. “It’s a huge concern,” Phillips stated. “We have been able to get adequate water so far.” Some onion production was affected by water cuts last season, and Phillips said these fields were the first to be harvested in 2015.
“We hope we’ll have an El Niño winter,” Phillips commented.
The company’s heaviest markets can be found east of Colorado, with the largest volume sold east of the Mississippi River to major metropolitan areas. Business along the West Coast and in the Los Angeles metropolitan area also continues to grow.
Growing conditions this summer in the Treasure Valley brought the onions on earlier for most shippers, and Herb Haun, vice president and sales manager of Haun Packing in Weiser, ID, said his company is no exception.
“We started harvesting the first week of August, a week to 10 days ahead of normal,” Haun said mid-August. “The market was good, and the onions were ready,” he added.
But Haun said the water situation in that region remains “critical,” and he emphasized, “We’re all learning a little more about conservation. There has been quite a shifting of crops, and there are not as many sugar beets or as much corn. There is more in the way of grains, and more ground lying fallow.”
And, Haun said, drip irrigation is becoming more commonplace, with 70 percent of the onions shipped by Haun Packing under drip now. Much of the product comes from Haun’s brother, Fred, who is company president and primary grower for the operation.
Five years ago the farm went to more drip irrigation and heavier planting to produce a more uniform onion of medium size for an increase in retail sales.
“Drip is a huge conservation measure,” Herb Haun said. “We don’t gain a lot in yields, but we do gain in quality.
To that end, he said that in mid-August the onions were sizing average or better, and “with the hot weather we had, the onions have cured really well.”
He said, “Quality is excellent this year.”
Haun Packing ships 85 percent yellow Spanish Sweets, 10 percent reds and the remainder in whites. Like most of his Treasure Valley counterparts, Haun has noticed an uptick in demand for reds.
“They do seem to be growing more in popularity and demand,” he said.
Storage was set to start on Sept. 7, “a week earlier than normal also,” but Haun said that the season for the fourth-generation onion operation is expected to run normally.
“We’ll clean up somewhere around March 10-15, like we generally do,” he said.
Haun Packing is third-party audited and certified GAP and GHP through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Each package can be traced back not only to Haun Packing but to the specific field.
Early onions were even earlier for Murakami Produce in Ontario, OR, this season, according to Grant Kitamura, president and general manager of the operation.
“We’ve been shipping since Aug. 10,” he said on Aug. 17. “The crop is about 10 days to two weeks ahead of normal, and our storage varieties are also maturing ahead of schedule.”
Kitamura said the Treasure Valley, along with the Northwest, had seen triple-digit temperatures in late June and early July.
“The quality is very good, and we have a good range of sizes,” he noted.
Kitamura said the early start to the season bodes well because of the quality and size as well as the early finish for other production areas.
“Marketing has been orderly, and prices are good,” Kitamura said. “Also, there is talk of more export from the Northwest, and that helps everything domestically.”
Transportation has also been easier than in 2014, and Kitamura said the West Coast ports’ opening up helps with the exports.
The sales team of Chris Woo, who is Murakami vice president, Georgie Gabica and Gary Belknap is complemented by sales and marketing by Potandon Produce in Idaho Falls, ID.
And this year the Murakami team added Cameron Skeen in June in operations and business development.
“Cameron is doing very well in his position,” Kitamura said of the third-generation Treasure Valley onion man.
The 30-acre Ontario site has 17 buildings, including a 50,0000-square-foot packinghouse, and Murakami purchased the storage bins and equipment from Ontario Produce for “future storage,” Kitamura said.
In 2014 Murakami ownership changed when six third-generation grower entities formed Murakami Growers LLC. Each entity committed its entire crop to Murakami Produce, increasing the operation’s overall volume.
Kitamura said foodservice volume is holding steady, noting “they need the larger onions that we grow.”
He also said the company is encouraged by the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) “looking at a category for dried bulb onions.”
He said, “The Food & Drug Administration is recognizing that our dried onions are not leafy greens,” and Kitamura added that in fact dried onions are considered to be one of the “Clean 15” produce items with the least risk of contamination or pesticide residue.
During an El Niño event, westward-blowing trade winds weaken along the Equator.
The changes in pressure and wind speed cause warm surface water to move eastward along the Equator, from the western Pacific to the coast of South America.
El Niño events can impact fisheries and produce crops alike. And this year word is out that it is affecting the South American mango crop.
Rick Nagelberg, vice president of Panorama Produce Sales Inc., based in Mamaroneck, NY, said, “Everyone is talking about bloom drops on mango trees associated with El Niño.”
Panorama Produce was founded more than 30 years ago.
Mangos have grown into one of the firm’s top items. Initially, the company brokered mangos, but today it is an importer. It brings mangos into the United States from many different production regions, and on a 12-month basis.
“We started moving mangos from Brazil in late August, and they’ll run through October,” said Nagelberg. “Ecuador mangos run from October through December and Peru kicks in late December and runs through March. We also handle mangos from Guatemala, which run in April and May.”
Panorama Produce’s location is an advantage when dealing with the company’s customers in and around the New York metropolitan area.
Mamaroneck is located northeast of New York City, and not too far from the Connecticut-New York border. The majority of mango exporters are in South Florida, so its Northern location helps in working with its customers in that region.
The company handles Tommy Atkins, Kent and Atualfo mango varieties, and it sells them under several different labels.
“We have increased our import program, and we’ve increased our retail business,” Nagelberg noted.
The firm has customers across the board including wholesalers, foodservice operators and retailers. Its customer list is also diverse geographically.
A large percentage of its customers are in the Northeast, but Panorama also ships to many areas of the country, including Florida, Texas, California, Chicago and other places in the Midwest.
In addition to its numerous mango deals, Panorama Produce also has a strong watermelon program.
It brings in a lot of vegetables and melons from the West Coast to its East Coast customers.