Texas onion season gets underway
March 17, 2005
by Tim Linden
The first Texas onions hit the market the week of March 14-18, but experts aren?t predicting promotional volume until early April.
Acreage is up a bit this year, but the rainy growing season has reduced the size of the onions themselves, which should offset the increased acreage and result in a crop very similar in volume to 2004. Acreage in the 35 counties covered by the federal marketing order for Texas onions has been listed at 15,433 for 2005 " an increase of about 7 percent from last year?s figure of 14,436 acres.
?It was a wet year, so there was some disease in the early fields," said Don Ed Holmes of The Onion House in Weslaco, TX. "That has affected the sizing, but it shouldn?t hurt the quality."
John Bearden, vice president of Plantation Produce Co. in Mission, TX, agreed. "Size could be a problem this year and that?s going to cut down volume, but that?s not all bad."
A decrease in the size of the onion will reduce marketable volume as it will take more onions to fill a carton or a sack. The onion market has been relatively depressed lately because of heavy worldwide volume. However, Mr. Bearden believes that the lighter Texas crop combined with other positive factors is going to help turn the deal around.
The Texas onion deal is an interesting one, since many of the shippers start the season in January with onions from Mexico. Texas is clearly the favored crossing point for Mexican onions.
John McClung of the Texas Produce Association said that Texas imports somewhere in the neighborhood of 250 million to 275 million pounds of onions every year. As a comparison, the next two largest crossing-point states are Arizona and California, with a combined import total of only around 20 million pounds.
In Texas, onion imports from Mexico make up about one-third of the onions sold from Texas each year. For example, for fiscal 2003 Texas shippers sold about 250 million pounds of Mexican onions and about 570 million pounds of Texas-grown onions.
On one hand, the distinction is very important. On the other hand, the seamless transition between Mexican and Texas onions allows Texas shippers to be the primary onion suppliers for their customers for six or seven months of the year.
Discussing the relative merits of the distinction, Mr. Bearden, whose firm does not sell Mexican onions, said, "We can get a premium for the Texas cartons," he said referring to the top-of-the-line onions that are typically marketed in 40-pound cartons. "For the bags, it doesn?t make a lot of difference."
He said that there are many U.S. retailers who prefer the top-quality Texas onions and are quick to switch as soon as the volume reaches promotable levels.
Mr. Holmes, who markets both Texas and Mexican onions, agreed that buyers are always looking for the new crop of onions, so when the season shifts from Mexico to Texas, there is an added air of excitement. He believes, however, that it is related to the point of origin rather than the quality of onions themselves. "A lot of buyers do like to buy American when they can."
Regarding the seamless transition between the Mexican growing season and the Texas growing season, Mr. McClung said that the practice of Texas shippers selling Mexican product is an important one for the Texas produce industry. Two decades ago, Texas was the third-largest grower-shipper of fruits and vegetables, behind California and Florida. In 2001, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture passed out the specialty block grants and based the amounts awarded on sales, it listed Texas as tied with New York for 10th place as a producer of fruits and vegetables.
?That may be true," said Mr. McClung, "but if you count the fruits and vegetables sold by Texas shippers, I think we are as large as we have ever been, and probably larger. That is a very important fact that people overlook."
In this increasingly global produce economy, Texas shippers still play a top-tier role if one does not quibble about the geographic location of the fields they control. One might wonder if it truly matters which side of the Rio Grande river the crop is grown.
For the most part, Mexican growers are producing similar varieties to U.S. standards for sweetness and pungency, with U.S. dollars. The onions are, in fact, grown for U.S. consumption.
The Onion House executive said that the pungency and the sweetness of the onion have become all important. As the crop shifts to Texas, his company, like many of the onion grower-shippers in the area, will continually test the onions for their pungency. The onions are laboratory tested for pyruvic acid.
?If it has a score of five or greater, they are marketed as "Texas onions." If it is less than five, we sell them as "Texas Sweet Onions."?
The Texas Sweet Onion has a storied history ever since university researchers produced the Texas 1015 almost two decades ago. That open-pollinated variety put Texas on the sweet onion map. Though the "1015? designation is still used, it now includes a modifier, calling it "1015-type? onions.
Mr. Holmes said that there really aren?t any original 1015 onions around anymore, as the industry has actually advanced to far better and sweeter varieties. "You can?t even buy an original 1015 anymore," he quipped.
Mr. McClung said that it was an issue for a few years, as some growers were marketing what they were calling direct descendants of the original 1015. But most growers have switched to 1015-type onions, which means they are sweet onions and typically are planted in the window surrounding Oct. 15, which is how the original "1015? got its name.
Both Messrs. Holmes and Bearden agreed that the "Texas 1015? name still has clout. In fact, with the turnover at retail, there are some buyers ordering, and swearing by, 1015 onions who have probably never actually bought one.
Mr. McClung said that his association has done research showing that Texas may need a new marketing hook. As explained, the 1015 designation actually refers to a specific onion. Mr. Holmes said that many shippers believe Texas might want to go the route of Vidalia and build up the geographic origin as opposed to a specific variety. That allows for equity to be built up in the name even as the varieties change.
Over the years, the Vidalia onion variety has obviously changed, yet consumers can identify with the geographic destination.
Mr. McClung said that his association is working on this effort, but it is at least a year away from fruition.