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Onion harvest in state’s Imperial Valley expected to start late April

With favorable weather during the growing season, onion growers in California’s Imperial Valley are expecting good yields, good size and good quality this year. Anticipating start dates for harvest in truckload volumes range from April 21 to May 1, although some early harvesting had already begun as of the second week of April.

“As you drive through the valley right now, you can really smell the onions,” said Kay Pricola, executive director of the Imperial Valley Vegetable Growers Association, April 11. “It smells wonderful.”

The Imperial Valley, one of California’s major onion growing districts and the earliest to harvest, is located at the southern tip of California, about 130 miles inland from San Diego. “This was a former sea,” said Pricola. “We are below sea level.” It is a desert area irrigated with water from the Colorado River “thanks to some brilliant pioneers.”

02-CalOnions-displayA retail display in a California supermarket. (Photo by Rand Green)When the current water contracts and agreements were made in the 1930s, “no one wanted the water, because at that point it was not considered great water. Now everyone wants it,” she said. “All things are relative.”

Although California is in its third year of a severe drought, onion growers in the Imperial Valley say they have sufficient water for this year’s crop. However, they are concerned about the water situation should the drought continue for another year.

From a soil perspective, the valley is well suited to onions. “Our soil is fairly unique, because it is an old ocean bed,” Pricola said. “There is high salinity to our soil, and there are a lot of soil types. Farmers around here have creatively figured out how to get high production on those varieties of soil” with crops that will tolerate the salt content of the soil, and onions are among the crops that do well in those soils.

“All types of onions” are grown in the valley, she said. That includes red, yellow and white storage onions, sweet onions and even green onions.

The total acreage planted to onions in the Imperial Valley in 2012, the most recent year for which final data are available, was around 8,500 acres. Roughly half of the production grown is for the fresh or fresh-cut market and a similar amount for processing. Seed onions are also an important crop.

Statewide in 2013, total bulb onion production in California was about 50,000 acres, a figure that normally doesn’t fluctuate much from year to year, according to Robert C. (Bob) Ehn, chief executive officer and technical manager of the California Garlic & Onion Research Advisory Board, which represents processed onion producers in the state.

According to a publication from the University of California Research & Information Center entitled “Fresh-Market Bulb Onion Production in California,” the main production areas for onions in California are “the low desert (Imperial and Riverside Counties), the San Joaquin Valley (Fresno, Kern and San Joaquin Counties), the Southern and Central Coast (Monterey, San Benito, Santa Clara and Ventura counties) and the high desert (eastern Los Angeles County). Bulb onions are planted September through May. Harvest begins in April or May and is usually completed in September.”

Fresh market and fresh-cut onions make up about 45 percent of total bulb onion acreage in the state, according to the UC publication. California ranks among the top fresh-bulb-producing states in the United States.