NYSSA, Ore. — As much as $100 million in damages were caused when dozens of onion storage sheds and packing facilities collapsed under the weight of deep snows that have buried Idaho and Eastern Oregon.
About 50 onion buildings collapsed under the weight of up to 40 inches of snow that has fallen during the harshest winter in memory.
“It’s an absolute catastrophe,” said Shay Myers, general manager of Owyhee Produce in Nyssa. Three of the company’s storage sheds and the building housing one of its packing lines collapsed.
Myers estimated the total damage to the onion industry in southwestern Idaho and Malheur County, Ore., could be near $100 million.
The region’s 300 onion farmers and 30 shippers produce about 25 percent of the nation’s big bulb storage onions.
The damage is devastating. In many cases, it looks like a tornado tore through the buildings, said Partners Produce co-owner Eddie Rodriguez.
“They’re still going down as we speak,” he said. “Now, it’s just happening everywhere. The snow is heavy and there’s too much of it.”
Partners has lost four buildings, including its main packing line in Payette, Idaho, which will be out of commission at least seven months.
The lost production has pushed the prices shippers receive for their onions up dramatically. For example, the price for a 50-pound bag of yellow jumbo onions was around $3.50 before the collapses but is nearly $10 now.
“There have been a lot of sheds that haven’t been able to pack onions. That’s why the market’s gone up,” said Paul Skeen, president of the Malheur County Onion Growers Association.
This region produces more than 1 billion pounds of Spanish big bulb onions annually, but the building collapses have claimed a good chunk of last year’s production. That’s because once the onions are exposed to the cold and freeze, they are no good.
Owyhee Produce alone lost 20 million pounds of onions when its buildings collapsed.
Snake River Produce in Nyssa lost the equivalent of 35, 40,000-pound truckloads of onions when four of its buildings collapsed.
“That’s peanuts compared to what some have lost,” said manager Kay Riley. “Everywhere you go ... there’s a building on the ground. It’s pretty dramatic.”
Onion industry leaders have contacted state and federal representatives to ask for help in finding assistance for the region. An estimated 150 farm- and non-farm-related buildings have been destroyed.
“I’ve personally seen at least 40 collapsed buildings, probably more,” said state Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario. “It really looks like they were hit by a bomb. It’s really shocking.”
U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both D-Ore., have asked the federal government to begin the process that would result in a federal disaster declaration for Malheur County and other Eastern Oregon counties impacted by the severe winter.
A federal disaster declaration would make farmers and other businesses eligible for low-interest loans, insurance relief and other disaster aid, according to a joint news release by the senators.
Rodriguez and others said it would probably take two to three years for the industry to totally recover and rebuild.
“It’s affecting all of us in the onion industry and beyond,” he said. “It’s a sad deal.”