NYSSA, Ore. — Farmers in southwestern Idaho and eastern Oregon say this year’s onion crop is off to a good start, but a looming water shortage on the Oregon side is on their mind.
“For the most part, I think the crop looks really good,” said Oregon farmer Paul Skeen, president of the Malheur County Onion Growers Association. “The big question is whether we will have enough water to finish the crop.”
Mike Thornton, a plant physiologist at University of Idaho’s Parma research center, said there have been a few reports of onion maggot damage, “but other than that, the crop seems to be progressing really well.”
Farmers in the Snake River Valley of southwestern Idaho and Malheur County, Ore., produce about 25 percent of the nation’s fresh bulb onion supply.
Most onion farmers on the Idaho side will have adequate water supplies this season but many farmers across the border who get their water from the Owyhee Irrigation District will get significantly less water than normal.
“Overall, things are looking pretty good. There haven’t been any insect or disease problems right off the bat,” said Stuart Reitz, an Oregon State University cropping systems extension agent in Malheur County. “But there’s still the concern about the water.”
Despite the possibility of a significant water shortage on the Oregon side, farmers believe total onion acres are on par with last year, when Idaho and Oregon growers planted 20,100 acres.
Growers on the upper part of the Owyhee system could receive less-than half the water this year than they normally get, while some farmers on the lower parts will have access to supplemental water pumped from the Snake River.
Farmers on the upper stretch have made adjustments, such as moving acreage to the lower parts or switching to drip irrigation, said Nyssa farmer Reid Saito.
Other farmers have fallowed some fields and will use the water for their onion crop, Reitz said.
“Overall, I think acreage is going to be comparable to past years,” Saito said. “Growers here are pretty resilient and resourceful. Everyone is doing what they can to minimize the lack of water.”
Another concern for onion farmers is the early emergency of yellow nutsedge, a troublesome weed that onion farmers in this area have to deal with on a regular basis.
“That’s always a difficult weed to deal with,” Reitz said. “Onion farmers try to keep it at bay early enough and then try to outrace it to the end of the season. It came up early in some fields this year and that’s causing a problem because it outcompetes the onions.”