The Texas onion deal will be a little late out of the gate this season but growers will get some help extending that season with a new later start date for Vidalia onion growers.
A cold winter by Texas standards — averaging about 10 degrees cooler than normal — will mean the Texas deal will not begin until about mid-March after harvest a week earlier. Mexico has also been behind this season due to cooler temperatures.
In late 2010, Texas onion growers appeared to be sitting pretty. They were coming off a year where their crop fetched as much as $40 a box — roughly a dollar a pound. Consumer demand had grown steadily for several years. Any past problems were squarely in the rearview mirror.
Then, as almost always happens, a few growers decided if some was good, more was better. Overplanting was rampant, production boomed. The predictable result of too much product on the market was a drop in pricing. Two years of struggle followed.
In 2013, growers cut back acreage by 40 percent. Most managed to work out water rights in drought-plagued Texas. The result was a return to solid markets and solid profitability.
Texas growers learned from the struggles of 2011-12, put that knowledge into play in 2013 and will follow the same template for 2014.
They may actually get a boost from an unlikely (and in some cases unwilling) ally as well — Vidalia onion growers. Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Gary Black earlier this year established a prohibition against early shipping of Vidalia onions. Though there is a court challenge under way, as it stands now, no Vidalia onions can be packed or shipped prior to April 21. Some Georgia growers said they will not even begin that soon this year.
That means Texas will have a wider window of exclusivity for its homegrown product, as much as a six-week window.
“Over the years the Vidalia growers have chipped away at the Texas deal by packing earlier and earlier,” said Marvin Davis of Tex Mex Sales in Weslaco, TX. “They weren’t doing themselves any favors by putting early-season product on the market before it was ready, some of them anyway. If consumers don’t have a good experience early in the season, they’re not going to come back.”
A judge is expected to rule on a court challenge to the Georgia pack-and-ship date some time in March. If the date is upheld, Texas growers will reclaim part of their original exclusivity window. If not, they stand to benefit anyway as some Vidalia growers have said they will not ship earlier onions regardless of the outcome of the judicial proceedings.
Meanwhile, “Sweet onions coming out of Mexico this year have been outstanding and the Texas crop looks even better,” said Delbert Bland of Bland Farms LLC in Glennville, GA, which also has operations in Mexico and the Lone Star State. “With the new highway and bridge in Mexico, the Southwest is becoming more important in the onion deal every day.”
“It’s still early, but the crop looks really good,” added Tex Mex’s Mike Davis.
Lone Star State growers are looking at promising markets — in the low and mid-20s in late February and early March — and decreased production in Mexico this year after similar drops in 2013 bode well for Texas.
Some key growing areas also benefited from several significant rain events over the last few months that helped growers stave off ever-present worries about water supplies.
“Prices should be strong,” said Bret Erickson, president of the Texas International Produce Association. “We still need moisture. But quality looks to be excellent and we will have a good supply of sweet onions out of Texas.”
In 2013 “there was one week in there you could actually call winter and that was it, the first week of January,” said Don Ed Holmes of The Onion House in Weslaco. This year the cooler weather provided a reverse of 2013.
And while the crop is late, Holmes was quick to note that onions are dormant during much of the production cycle, getting most of their growth in the month before harvest, and thus virtually impervious to cooler weather.