Walla Walla valley's onion festival is one sweet treat

WALLA WALLA, WA -- Toasty temperatures in the Walla Walla valley eventually pushed the mercury into triple digits, but it did not put a damper on the recent 22nd annual Walla Walla Sweet Onion Festival.

The free event, held at the Walla Walla County Fairgrounds July 14-16, showcased the famous Walla Walla sweet onion, a variety as distinctive as the area in which it is grown and marketed.

Anticipating ongoing success and good attendance, this year's event was expanded to more than two days -- the first time in its history. Kathy Fry, marketing director for the Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Committee, manned the organization's booth at the festival and said it "just keeps getting better and better."

The festival was kicked off the evening of July 14 with a special dinner honoring the valley's growers and shippers. On Saturday, a number of crowd-pleasing events returned, including cooking demonstrations and barbecue cookoffs featuring Wall Walla sweet onions as a prominent ingredient. The festival also provided an outlet for arts and crafts vendors and tastings of locally produced wines.

An expanded music concert was offered this year, with three bands keeping the place jumping on Saturday night.

Ms. Fry said that the committee has always partnered with local nonprofit organizations to help with fund raising as a way to "give back to the community." Fund-raising activities included two local poker runs and a pancake breakfast.

New to the schedule this year was a 5K/10K fun run sponsored by Walla Walla Friends. On Sunday, a total of 61 runners and walkers - including The Produce News' Northwest Editor Kathleen Thomas Gaspar - participated in "The Sweet Power of Friendship Fun Run" (see story below). Walla Walla Friends mentors work with local at- risk youth, and some of the contestants were youth-mentor pairs who ran the course together in a show of solidarity.

Multicultural Marketing & Recruitment Director Joey August was stationed at the finish line cheering the participants on as the race clock rolled.

"Everyone finished," he told The Produce News, adding that he had already received feedback about ways to expand the event in 2007. He said he is looking forward to implementing those suggestions to make next year's run bigger and better.

Keith Frosceno no longer with Newell

As the July 24 issue of The Produce News was going to press, it was learned that Keith Frosceno, regional vice president of sales for W. Newell & Co. in Champaign, IL, left that company July 14.

The company's Charlie Nealis will be taking over Mr. Frosceno's responsibilities on an interim basis until a permanent replacement can be found, according to Harry Johnson, the company's director of human resources. Asked when a permanent replacement might be named, Mr. Nealis replied, "There's never a timetable. As soon as we can find the right individual, we'll make a decision."

Before joining W. Newell & Co. about one year ago, Mr. Frosceno was vice president of produce and floral at Bozzuto's Inc. in Cheshire, CT, for many years. The Produce News was unable to contact Mr. Frosceno for comment, but his departure was described as very amicable.

"Keith was a very valuable member of the leadership team and contributed to Newell getting up and going," said Mr. Nealis. "We wish Keith and family all the best."

Improved Nogales port of entry facility expected to open in mid-August

An infrastructure improvement at the Mariposa Port of Entry in Nogales, AZ, consisting of the addition of two new lanes, including a new fast lane, is expected to be completed by mid-August. The improvement is designed to speed the process of getting produce trucks from Mexico across the border into the United States to the warehouses in Nogales.

Long waiting times for produce trucks at the border have long been a problem, particularly during the winter when fruit and vegetable imports from Mexico are at their peak and upwards of 1,200 trucks are crossing on a daily basis. Long delays not only increase transportation costs, but they also reduce the shelf life of the perishable products aboard. The Fresh Produce Association of the Americas in Nogales has given a great deal of attention to the problem.

Coming up with funding for the needed infrastructure improvements has been a challenge, but the association, working with a group called the Border Trade Alliance, was able to secure funding from the state of Arizona to add two new lanes on the U.S. side of the border and from the Mexican state of Sonora for extension of the two lanes on the Mexican side.

With the expansion, there will now be a total of four truck lanes through the screening areas at the port of Mariposa, according to FPAA President Lee Frankel. One of those will be dedicated to what is being called a "fast lane" that will expedite the crossing for trucks participating in a special security program.

For trucks to qualify to use the fast lane, the Mexican producer and exporter and the U.S. importer must be registered in the U.S. Customs & Border Protection agency's Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism program, and bills of lading must be furnished to Customs in advance.

The program "helps minimize some of the risks that Customs and [the U.S. Department of] Homeland Security are concerned about," while reducing the time it takes to get trucks through the various inspections and across the border, Mr. Frankel said. Produce buyers and consumers in the United States will benefit by receiving produce that is fresher than it would be if trucks continued to experience long delays.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony to open the new lanes is scheduled for Aug. 15. Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano and Sonora Gov. Eduardo Bours are among the dignitaries expected to be present.

Washington fruit crop damage assessments to be released in August

KENNEWICK, WA -- Dan Kelly, assistant director of the Washington Growers Clearing House Association in Wenatchee, WA, said July 17 that he expects realistic numbers about summer hail damage to the state's crop of apples, pears and cherries will become available the week of Aug. 7.

Mr. Kelly said that preliminary numbers in mid-July were "guestimates," and he indicated that the numbers were most likely on the high side. Estimates were that approximately 1 million boxes of pears will be lost in 2006, and apples are likely to be down somewhere between 10 million to 20 million boxes.

"No one has really come out with a number [for cherries]," he told The Produce News. "The cherry deal should still be close to a record crop."

Mother Nature hit the area hard in June and again in early July 5 with two major hailstorms and a series of smaller weather events in eastern Washington. Apple trees suffered the most damage, with several growers in the Wallula area and Chelan County sustaining significant crop losses. Mr. Kelly said that hailstorms usually do not appear until late July or early August, and orchards in these two locations were in the storms' epicenters.

Pear losses were estimated at 6 percent of the crop. B.J. Thurlby, president of the Washington State Fruit Commission, said earlier in the season that cherries sustained a 1 percent loss, a minimal impact to this year's crop.

Statewide, harvests for all three commodities were looking good in mid-July.

"At the end of the day, [the numbers] add up," Mr. Kelly stated. "We should have good apple and pear crops. The first half of the shipping season [for cherries] outpaced last year by a half-million boxes."

San Joaquin grape harvest not late as expected, thanks to recent hot weather

Following weeks of cold, wet spring weather, it appeared at one point that the table grape harvest in California's San Joaquin Valley would start at least two weeks later than normal, and some growers had predicted start dates as much as three weeks late.

But warm and sometimes extremely hot weather over the past two months has changed all that, as timing has generally returned to within three or four days of normal, and reliable supplies of fresh grapes in promotable volume are now available.

As recently as mid-June, several California grape growers told The Produce News that they expected to start harvesting grapes in the San Joaquin Valley a week to 10 days later than normal. But some of them who were not expecting to begin harvesting their earliest varieties until the middle of July actually got going right around July 3 or 4.

Anthony Vineyards in Bakersfield, CA, started harvesting Flames in the Arvin district on July 3. "It was kind of surprising," said Anthony's John Harley. "We thought it was going to be late and we probably misjudged that by about four or five days. As we got closer to harvest, it actually got caught up, at least for us."

Ballantine Produce Co. in Reedley, CA, started with Flames in Arvin on July 5, just three days later than last year. Coming into spring, "we were looking at things as much as three weeks late," and as recently as early June, it still looked to be a week late, said Ballantine's Mike Celani.

"Overall, we are probably looking at the rest of the season being, at most, only a few days off from the previous year," he said.

It may be "just the extremely warm weather" that brought the crop on earlier than anticipated, "but we were looking at not starting Arvin 'till sometime around the 15th of July," said Mike Binn of Columbine vineyards in Delano, CA. "It came in a good week earlier than we expected.

With the start of the San Joaquin Valley deal, growers say they now expect to have continuous supplies of grapes in promotable volume throughout the remainder of the season. That should be a welcome prospect to buyers who faced significant shortages and exceptionally high prices during the Mexican and Coachella, CA, grape deals in May and June.

Growers do say that the San Joaquin Valley crop will be lighter this year than last, but "we don't need another 95 million-box crop," noted Chuck Olsen of the Chuck Olsen Co. in Visalia, CA.

Many growers have said that their Thompson crop will be lighter this year, and the Autumn Royal black seedless variety in particular appears to be very light for many growers.

Exceptional quality, good color and good berry size are being seen on the early fruit, although there was some concern that if the extremely hot weather persists, some problems could develop later in the season.

"We have never had nicer looking Perlettes than we have down" in Arvin, Columbine's Mike Binn said on July 11.

"I think this year we are off 20 percent on the crop easy," said Nick Dulcich of Jakov Dulcich & Sons in Delano. But "what's out there, the quality looks good."

The heat is also affecting stone fruit in the San Joaquin Valley. According to a July 17 memo from the California Tree Fruit Agreement, "Packouts have dropped temporarily for all three commodities [peaches, plums and nectarines], as they are between major varieties. After a scorching weekend July 15 and 16 that has slowed harvest activity, packouts will increase during the middle to end of this week with harvest beginning for the next set of major varieties."

As of July 19, the 10-day forecast for the Fresno, CA, area called for daily highs continuing in the 104- to 110-degree range. Robert Rocha of P-R Farms in Fresno expressed concern that with continued hot weather, stone fruit "might see some delayed maturity," which could result in production gaps later in the season.

In Southern California, the heat was affecting on the avocado crop. "The current heat wave across the industry is expected to continue this week," stated an "urgent communiqu?" to growers from the California Avocado Commission dated July 17. "We know this presents challenges for many growers as fruit drop accelerates, harvesting continues at record levels and the industry's infrastructure is stretched." The communiqu? contained harvest and post-harvest guidelines for maintaining temperatures "during very warm weather."