Onions are big business in Ontario, Ore., where Cameron Skeen likes how things are going at the large storage, packing, marketing and shipping company he helps manage.
He is chief operating officer and one of the managing partners at Baker & Murakami Produce, formed in a July 2017 merger of Baker Packing and Murakami Produce Co. The combined company is the largest volume onion shipper in the region and one of the largest in the U.S.
“It was a monumental undertaking,” he said of the merger, “and has taken a monumental effort by many people throughout the company. But we couldn’t be more pleased at our results to date.”
Baker & Murakami Produce and about 27 other packing facilities — along with about 300 growers, a handful of processors and numerous storage shed operators — comprise the onion industry in the Treasure Valley of southwest Idaho and southeast Oregon.
Together, they produce more than 1 billion pounds of onions — about 25 percent of the storage onions eaten in the U.S.
Bad year, good year
Last year’s ideal growing conditions and high yields enabled the industry to bounce back from a particularly rough 2017, when a record 40-inch snowfall and arctic temperatures caused nearly $100 million in damage, collapsing the roofs of many of the region’s storage sheds and destroying millions of pounds of onions.
Most snow-damaged commercial sheds were quickly repaired or rebuilt. At the former Baker Packing, a packaging-material storage warehouse collapsed, as did part of a large awning on an onion-storage building the company rented. The former Murakami Produce building had some truss damage. All damage was repaired.
“Considering how many storages and buildings the two companies had at the time and currently have, we were very fortunate overall,” Skeen said.
Onions remain a dominant part to the region’s economy.
“I think the local industry is going to continue to be an important part of agriculture for our valley,” Skeen said. “Idaho-Eastern Oregon holds a considerable market share with respect to the domestic supply of onions. With that said, I do think we’ll see considerable changes in our local industry that are part of a maturation of the industry itself.”
Efficiency-driven improvements on farms and in packing operations — as labor remains tight but technology improves — and an increasingly complex market are among the trends, he said.
Onions rank 11th in farm gate receipts in both Oregon and Idaho.
Laura Johnson, Idaho State Department of Agriculture Market Development Division bureau chief, said onions brought in $47 million at the farm gate in 2017, not including economic contributions from processors.
“Idaho is a diversified agricultural state with more than 185 crops grown, so onions are very important to our state’s ag economy,” she said.
Andrea Cantu-Schomus of the Oregon Department of Agriculture said onions in 2017 ranked 11th by value at $111 million, just below blueberries and above Christmas trees on the list of top crops.
Oregon, with several climate regions, grows some onions in the Willamette Valley on the state’s west side but not nearly on the scale seen near the eastern border, she said.
The Treasure Valley onion market is also important nationally.
“They are about one-third of the fall-winter storage segment,” longtime National Onion Association Executive Vice President Wayne Mininger said. “That includes probably 12 or 13 states growing for that segment.”
Eighteen to 20 states — from California to Washington and from Georgia to New York — grow onions commercially, he said. In addition to fall-winter storage, the U.S. industry has spring fresh and summer non-storage markets.
Some of the fall-winter storage crop’s early onions go directly from the field to market, but most are placed in storage from which they are moved out “week-by-week, month-by-month” until marketing season concludes, Mininger said.
As for southeast Oregon and southwest Idaho, “that area emphasizes foodservice, but those onions could go any place: consumers, restaurants or institutions, or peel-slice-dice-chunk,” he said. Treasure Valley onion growers “have an outstanding reputation for production, and for the onions they send to market.”
NOA spokeswoman Rene Hardwick said onions represent the third-largest fresh vegetable industry in the U.S. and that per-capita consumption has increased by more than 70 percent in the past two decades. Strong demand in part reflects that onions are consumed raw or cooked, and used in many types of cuisine.
Onions thrive in the Treasure Valley for reasons that include its warm summer days and cool nights, and the extensive irrigation infrastructure.
Onions generate business for equipment suppliers and manufacturers, too.
Manufacturers such as Top Air Inc. in Parma, Idaho, near the Oregon border, design and manufacture specialty harvest equipment for onions. Top Air now has an international reach.
“The company was founded because the Treasure Valley is one of the largest winter-storage onion-growing areas in the nation,” owner and President Duane Kido said.
Jim Klauzer, technical consultant at Clearwater Supply in Ontario, said that as drip irrigation has become more common, yields have jumped to more than 900 hundredweight per acre in a good year compared to 600-650 hundredweight 20 years ago. Drip irrigation also opened more ground to production.
“Upland ground has now been put into onion production that 25 years ago nobody would have considered” due to concerns about erosion, crop uniformity and yield, he said. About 18,000 acres — 80 percent of the area’s onion crop — is drip-irrigated now compared to around 3 percent in 2000, he said.
Onion acres harvested in Idaho totaled 8,100 in 2018, 8,000 in 2017 and 9,200 in 2016, University of Idaho agricultural economist Ben Eborn said, citing NASS statistics. Oregon totals were 19,300 acres last year, 19,700 in 2017 and 18,800 in 2016. Yields increased last year over the snow-delayed 2017, when they were down 15 to 30 percent from average depending on location.
“It’s a good product in that it gets packaged and to an extent processed before it leaves the state,” he said. The processing adds to the economic impact.
Local growers follow prices for jumbo and medium red onions, jumbo and medium white onions, and all sizes of yellow onions, said Malheur County Onion Growers Association President Paul Skeen, Cameron’s father.
“Compared to 40 years ago, the price we received for the crop has not changed much, yet our expenses for packing and growing the crop have tripled or more,” Paul Skeen said. But he’s optimistic about the price gain in recent weeks.
“Movement has been great, the onions are absolutely beautiful and we keep hearing of shortages in Europe,” he said. “We are optimistic we can hold this, and we would like some of our competitors to stay with us” on price.
USDA Agricultural Marketing Service statistics show a 50-pound sack of jumbo yellow onions on the open market sold for an average of $5.375 on Dec. 20, 2008, and for $5 on Dec. 22, 2018.
But then the price jumped.
Mick Davie, reporter for AMS Specialty Crops Market News in Idaho Falls, said the open-market price for yellow jumbo onions from the region increased between late December and mid-January, to $7.50 to $8 per sack.
“They started going up right after Christmas,” he said.
“And whites probably have increased more than the yellow jumbos,” Davie said on Jan. 24. “Right now a 50-pound sack of whites, in jumbo or medium size, is $30.”
On Dec. 26, jumbo whites were selling at $11.50 to $13 per sack, and yellow jumbos were selling “from $5 to $6, mostly $5,” he said.
More than half of Idaho-Oregon onions are sold on contract, Davie said.
“Some years it stays flat and some years it’s wild,” said Dell Winegar, an onion grower outside Fruitland, Idaho, who is president of the Idaho Onion Growers Association.
Growers historically banked on prices rising as the August-to-May marketing season progressed, “but now the market is so global that you can’t count on that all the time.”
The percentage of Oregon-Idaho onions that is exported is fairly small and lower than that of Washington.
Over the years, Winegar said, Oregon-Idaho domestic prices often rose when more of the Washington inventory was going overseas. “That’s probably still the case, but now we (Oregon-Idaho) are getting more onions into Mexico, which helps our price.”
High transportation costs pose a challenge to Oregon and Idaho growers and shippers, Winegar said. The Treasure Valley Reload Center, a multi-modal transfer facility planned near Nyssa, Ore., to receive $26 million from the state of Oregon “will help us tremendously on freight.”
There, onions will be transferred from trucks to railcars for the trip to market. Washington onion growers already have access to a similar facility.
Onions, with their shallow-rooted plant structure that supports a sizable bulb, are challenging to grow. They come with high input costs and low tolerance for irrigation mistakes. With too little water, they don’t get big enough, but over-watering can mean they won’t store well.
“They do demand a lot of tender loving care,” said Stuart Reitz, who directs the Oregon State University Malheur Experiment Station between Ontario and Nyssa. “They are probably one of the more demanding crops grown in the area.”
The region’s onions hold up well in storage, “and buyers trust what they get from this area,” he said. Ten to 12 varieties comprise the bulk of what’s sold, but several dozen can be grown in the region.
Western Laboratories, in Parma, offers a test to help determine if and when a particular lot of onions might rot. Nematologist and plant pathologist Harry Kreeft said it can help growers plan storage and sales schedules.
Cameron Skeen, who also farms onions, said moisture-sensor monitoring and infrared satellite imagery are helping in the field, while at Baker & Murakami, “electronic grading is a key component to our investment in automation. I think we’ll continue to see advancements in this area. Information systems also are very important.”