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Walla Walla festival celebrates rich history and hard work

With the 27th annual tribute to Walla Walla sweet onions set to take place July 16 and 17 in downtown Walla Walla, WA, organizers are anticipating approximately 10,000 attendees over the two-day event.

Moreover, according to Kathy Fry-Trommald, marketing director for the Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Committee, some of those planning to join the festivities are traveling considerable distances to do so.

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Kathy Fry-Trommald with the 2011 Walla Walla Sweet Onion Festival poster, designed by Washington artist Diana Schmidt and announcing the July 16-17 event in downtown Walla Walla, WA. Beginning with her 2008 festival poster, Ms. Schmidt’s artwork has taken top honors at the annual Summit Awards ceremony, a competition organized by the Washington Festivals & Events Association. (Photo courtesy of the Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Committee)

“I recently received an e-mail from Chilliwack, BC, telling me that the sender was scheduling time off to come to the [Walla Walla] Sweet Onion Festival,” Ms. Fry-Trommald said in mid-April. “And I got a call from folks a couple of years ago who were making a detour during their vacation to attend. So we’re becoming known nationwide.”

The festival pays homage to the region’s namesake industry and the official Washington state vegetable, all of which have common roots in the arrival of French immigrant Pete Pieri to the Walla Walla Valley more than a century ago.

The former soldier brought onion seeds with him from Europe, and in the early 1900s one of Mr. Pieri’s farmworkers, Italian immigrant Joe Locati, began growing the onions for himself.

Today, Michael Locati, grandson of Joe Locati, continues to grow the mild and sweet onion and also chairs the Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Committee.

Ms. Fry-Trommald, who has overseen the festival for several years, said that this year’s event is the fourth to be staged downtown. Previously it had been held at the county fairgrounds or historical park.

When she began promoting the festival, it was a single-day event; it has expanded in recent years to the two-day schedule to showcase more fully what Gov. Christine Gregoire designated as the Washington state vegetable in April 2007.

Working with the marketing committee director is a group of volunteers, appropriately calling themselves The Onion Ring, who coordinate the many activities.

Again this year the festival will include a 5-k Fun Run, Salad Slawter cooking contest, live music, Sweet Skip progressive meal, self-guided walking tour, street dance, kids’ games, face painting, arts and crafts and a beer-and-wine garden.

A Walla Walla sweet onion eating contest is among the events, and the two days also will feature chef cooking demos, martial arts presentations and the increasingly popular Bald as an Onion contest for hirsute-challenged men.

One of the more successful advertising tools for the July event has been the festival poster. This year’s graphic design was again created by Washington artist Diana Schmidt, who for three consecutive years has won top honors for the Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Committee at the Summit Awards ceremony, a competition organized by the Washington Festivals & Events Association.

At the same time she has been planning festival activities, Ms. Fry-Trommald also has promoted Walla Walla sweets at a number of trade venues. In early April she staffed the committee’s booth at the Northwest Foodservice Show in Portland, OR, distributing collateral material and meeting with visitors.

In May she will take part in the launch of Burgerville’s 2011 promotion for Walla Walla sweet onion rings. The regional restaurant chain and Sysco Food Co. “do it big every year,” Ms. Fry-Trommald said of the promotion that will kick off May 24 in Wilsonville, OR.