ONTARIO, Ore. — In its second year since being reborn, the Idaho-Eastern Oregon Onion Festival is starting to regain some of its former luster and organizers hope to turn it into a marquee event again.
The event was held annually from 1997 to 2005 but lost momentum after being handed over a local community group. Growers, onion packing sheds and local community groups teamed up to revive it last year.
This year’s event, which was held Aug. 2 in conjunction with the Malheur County Fair, attracted a few hundred people who competed in onion cooking, decorating and eating contests as well as a cooking demonstration and onion golf.
A little more than $1,000 in cash prizes were handed out and that money was donated by growers and packing sheds.
“It’s not as big as it was before we stopped having it (several) years ago but it’s starting to gain momentum again,” said Nyssa grower Reid Saito.
About 21,000 acres of big bulb onions are grown in Southwestern Idaho and Eastern Oregon. The area is the largest onion-growing region in the United States in terms of volume.
There are 40 onion packing sheds and the industry’s local economic impact is estimated at $1.3 billion.
The onion industry is the backbone of the local economy, but incredibly a lot of people in the region don’t realize that, said Nyssa area farmer Paul Skeen, president of the Malheur County Onion Growers Association.
There are times when people are tempted to complain about the smell of onions or the skins that can be seen on streets and highways during harvest season, and the festival helps people see the big picture, he said.
“I think it’s important for our community to really understand how important the onion industry is here,” he said.
The industry does a lot of promotion but the focus is outside the region, in markets where the onions are sold, Saito said.
Farmers in the area harvest and ship out about 24,000, 40,000-pound carlots of onions a year.
“It’s a huge industry here and it makes sense that we try to promote it locally so that people here know those things,” he said. “That’s part of the reason we brought the onion festival back.”
Festival organizers are working with the local Boys & Girls Club to try to turn it into a stand-alone event and make it even bigger, said Kit Kamo, executive director of the Snake River Economic Development Alliance, a private non-profit group that is helping coordinate the festival.