Onion season starts slowly in state’s far north

Issue Date: April 17, 2019
By Kevin Hecteman
Processing onions grown in the Klamath Basin typically have the highest yields in California, according to farmer Marshall Staunton, who says a late start for this year’s crop could affect the eventual yields.

Too much rain appears to be putting a bit of a damper on the dehydrator-onion season near the California-Oregon border.

"We normally would start today (April 15) or a little bit earlier, and we haven't touched a piece of ground," said farmer Marshall Staunton of Tulelake. "It's still pretty darn wet everywhere."

Staunton said he thinks he should be able to get moving by Easter weekend or shortly thereafter.

Bob Ehn, chief executive and technical manager with the California Garlic and Onion Research Advisory Board in Clovis, said this year's crop of dehydrator onions—also called processing onions—looks good so far, noting that California has about 23,000 acres planted to such onions, in regions ranging from Siskiyou to Imperial counties.

"We needed some heat to get things moving along, and I think we're going to get that," Ehn said, noting this week's forecasted warmup. Central Valley temperatures should reach the high 80s by week's end, according to the National Weather Service.

"The crop does look good," Ehn said. "I haven't had any reports of problems yet with insects or other pests."

Staunton said onion growers' chief concerns in that area are white rot, seed corn maggots and onion maggots. White rot was the motivation for the research advisory board's formation in 2005; Staunton said the pathogen first showed up in the Klamath Basin in the 1950s.

"Our biggest strategy is trying to find clean ground that doesn't have the disease," Staunton said.

White rot can persist in the ground for as long as 20 years, according to the University of California Cooperative Extension. Infected plants will have leaves turning yellow, wilting and dying, beginning at the base.

The onion farmer's best defense against the maggots right now is seed coatings, Staunton said. Rotating fields can help if the crop can be moved 8 to 10 miles, "but we kind of have onions growing every year all around the valley, so it seems like the pressure stays pretty solid," he added.

Processing-onion harvesting is under-way in the Imperial Valley, Ehn said, and will gradually work its way north to the Klamath region.

Staunton, who said he's looking at a "complex water-delivery scenario" from the federal Klamath Project, said he expects tight water supplies toward the end of the season. Harvest would begin at the end of September at the earliest, he said; the normal harvest period is Oct. 10 to Nov. 5.

"For this year, looks like we should muddle through, one way or another," Staunton said.

"We typically can boast that we have the highest yields in the state of California for processing onions," Staunton said. "But if we start two weeks late, that all gets taken away. We're chomping at the bit to get started. We need a little break in the weather."

Onions of all sorts may be in short supply around the country for a few months, according to a statement from the National Onion Association, which represents growers of the vegetable nationwide.

"Decreased onion exports out of Europe, coupled with shrinking supplies from Mexico and Canada, fewer acres planted and increased demand in the United States are making for these tighter supplies," said Greg Yielding, executive vice president and chief executive of the National Onion Association, based in Greeley, Colo.

Nationwide, about 6 million 50-pound units of storage onions were on hand, a 61% drop in one month, according to the association.

Onions of all kinds were harvested on 48,500 acres in California in 2017, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, with yield averaging 470 tons per acre. The crop brought in $13.80 per hundredweight, with a total value of $315.6 million, according to CDFA.

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be reached at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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