Now in its fifth year, the sweet onion program at Snake River Produce continues to see good demand as it grows in volume.
The Nyssa, OR, onion packingshed will be shipping from its 50 acres of sweets this season, according to General Manager Kay Riley and Transportation Manager and Sales/Marketing Assistant Tiffany Cruickshank.
“The market is growing on a steady basis, and the Snake River Sweets have been well-received,” Riley said in late August. “We’re very optimistic about the program.”
Cruickshank noted that production of the sweets has increased annually, and this year the first loads will start shipping in mid-September.
“Last year we went to late February with the sweets,” she said, adding that the round sweet is a large onion with high yields.
“It’s milder than the Spanish Sweet,” she said. “Less pungent. The skin is a little lighter, too.”
Predominantly single-center, the Snake River Sweets cook well, and Cruickshank said it is becoming the preferred variety of Snake River’s processor customers.
“We’re seeing more of it go to retail as well,” she said. The majority of the sweets are shipped in 40-pound cartons, and each onion is individually stickered. Snake River also packs the sweets in consumer mesh bags.
As did the majority of Treasure Valley shippers, Snake River saw an early start to the season, which Riley said for his operation is “the earliest on record.”
He said, “We started bringing onions in during late July, and we’ve never done that before. We brought them in on July 31 and ran them on Aug. 4.”
Riley added that the shed had been “pretty busy, and we’ll start going into storage Sept. 9 or 10.”
Both Riley and Cruickshank said transportation thus far has been easier, and Riley commented, “This is the first time in my memory that we’ve had enough truck drivers for the number of trucks. We anticipate this will alleviate any extreme shortage.”
Cruickshank said the holidays will likely see a tightening in trucks with the shipments of nursery stock and Christmas trees out of the Northwest.
Still, for the time being transportation is going well, as is the transition from other growing areas to IEO.
“It was a bit difficult right at first,” Riley said of the deal’s movement. “California and New Mexico had gaps. Prices were high and demand was down for a while, but based on shipments for the last week, we’re on par for normal activity.”
He said Snake River’s early onions were going to the company’s normal customers, although some of the contract buyers don’t initiate shipments until September.
As for quality and size, Riley said overall size was down somewhat, with supers and colossals tighter. “We have more mediums, and we have a lot of jumbos.”
Quality is good, and Riley said, “We’re very excited for this early start and hope our production proves out.”
He also said the entire storage onion industry is “anxiously awaiting the final rule from the Food Safety Modernization Act. That proposed rule before the last comment period would work for us.”
That rule would re-categorize dry bulb storage onions apart from leafy greens.
The 2015 growing season was out of the norm from the jump, according to Jon Watson, president of J.C. Watson Packing Co., headquartered in Parma, ID.
“It’s been a very interesting growing season,” Watson said in mid-August. “The crop is about the same amount of acres as it’s been, but we planted earlier this year. Also, we’ve had favorable weather, hot weather, and we’re 10 days to two weeks earlier in this year’s crop.”
J.C. Watson started running onions on July 31, and early reds were going into storage in August.
Describing reds as an important part of the company’s manifest, Watson said, “Every year we keep growing and selling more reds, and this year we have bigger production and nicer sizes. The demand and usage is up, and we’ve increased by about 5 percent over last year.”
He continued, “We ship reds every single day, and they make up about 20 percent of our total volume now. We’re putting more reds into every segment — fresh-cut, foodservice and retail.”
The last load of 2014 Treasure Valley reds was May 15, and Watson indicated that the shed shipped the last load of Valley onions on June 1 this year.
“Some of the early onions in certain areas of the Treasure Valley are smaller, but we’ll have an adequate supply of jumbos,” he said. “We might be tighter on colossols and super colossols.”
A two-week spate of exceptionally weather in late June and early July was followed by cooler temps, and Watson said that weather pattern “will allow us to cure the crop down for storage.”
In short, he said, “I’m trying to find a way to complain about the weather, and after this weekend I just won’t have any reason to.”
Watson went on to say that California and New Mexico cleaned up in their respective onion deals early, allowing for a smooth transition from one region to another.
“One thing I know for sure is that as of this date, we have marketed more onions than usual because we’ve had nice onions to market.”
The third of four generations of Watsons to grow and ship produce, the current company president said onion farming practices have become more precise with drip irrigation, and water conservation is one of the benefits.
“We’re 100 percent drip now,” he said, adding that the tape was being removed from fields “to let the ground air out.”
In the shed, Watson has installed a new front end to the line for topping and cleaning more precisely.
“It’s a three-bank topper, and we can control the size of the top that’s left on,” he said.
Watson also said the company continues to increase capacity for retail packing, with more product going direct to large retail customers.
“We’re planting more for retail, and we also color sort for retail,” he 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.
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.
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.