WALLA WALLA, Wash. — Michael J. Locati is carrying on a sweet tradition.
At 24, he farms Walla Walla sweet onions with his father and uncle. He’s poised to assume production of the region’s trademark onions from his uncle, Michael F. Locati, and his father, Bud Locati, making him the fourth generation of his family to farm.
The Locatis started raising Walla Walla sweet onions in 1973. Together, they farm about 280 acres in southeastern Washington state. About 50 acres are devoted to Walla Walla sweet onions.
The heirloom onions have been important to the Locatis through the years, they said.
“If we weren’t raising onions, I don’t know what else we would be raising,” Michael J. Locati said.
The Locatis are among a handful of farmers who raise the prized onions. About 15 farmers raise Walla Walla sweet onions on about 500 acres, Kathy Fry-Trommald, executive director of the Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Committee, said.
The secret of the Walla Walla onion is its low pyruvic acid content. Pyruvic acid is what makes onions pungent. Combined with a high water content — it’s 95 percent water — the Walla Walla onion is unlike any other.
“It makes for a real juicy, flavorful product,” Fry-Trommald said.
“They’re a specialty onion, so they have a specific niche in the marketplace that gives them a competitive advantage at times pricewise,” said Bill Dean, vice president of research and quality control for River Point Farms in Hermiston, Ore.
Walla Walla sweet onion prices vary, Michael F. Locati said. Sweet onions can bring prices about 25 to 30 percent more than regular yellow onions, he said. According to the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, as of June 30 jumbo Walla Walla sweet onions were priced at nearly $20 per 40-pound carton and $15 for medium onions.
Dean supervises a farmer in Touchet, Wash., who grows about 100 acres of Walla Walla sweet onions for the company.
Most Walla Walla sweets are planted in September — a time when onions aren’t ordinarily planted — and grow over the winter, Dean said.
“The most important thing about the sweet onion is its taste profile,” Dean said. “I believe the Walla Walla onion is the best-tasting onion you can purchase, and I’m glad I have an opportunity to grow them. I like to eat them and brag on them to some of our customers.”
River Point Farms sells its crop to the Burgerville fast food chain in the Portland and Vancouver, Wash., area.
“That’s always nice when the customer realizes you’ve got something different and they appreciate it,” Dean said.
Dean credits Walla Walla sweet onion genes for the taste. They were preserved by the growers who originally brought them into the United States in the early 1900s, he said.
“You can’t grow it just anywhere,” he said. “It’s a combination of the right growing conditions and the right genetics.”
‘Able to make a living’
At their peak in the 1990s, Walla Walla Valley farmers grew roughly 1,100 acres of the sweet onions, but now average between 500 and 800 acres. The average yield is 650 50-pound units per acre.
Sweet onions emerged as a category in grocery stores in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Michael F. Locati said. As the popularity of Walla Walla sweets increased, producers in Arizona, Texas, Georgia and Maui, Hawaii, developed their own sweet onions.
As a result, the overall market for all sweet onions became more regional. Increasing freight expenses also made it harder to compete with local sweet onions in other areas, Michael F. Locati said. Walla Walla sweets are primarily shipped to Northwest and West Coast markets, Fry-Trommald said.
Failure of a crop in one location can occasionally open the door to sweet onions from other regions, Michael F. Locati said, but otherwise demand is fairly static.
“The trifecta is to have a huge market, a huge crop and a huge price,” he said. “I’ve seen it a couple times in 35 years, but typically you’re kind of up and down and you find that average. We’ve been able to make a living.”
Winter weather issues reduced production “substantially” this year, Fry-Trommald said.
“I think we’re going to have high quality, but I don’t think we’re going to have the volume we usually do,” Dean said. “Some of our customers may get shorted.”
Some farmers replanted onions in the spring to compensate for the winter, Michael F. Locati said.
With such small acreage, the onions sell quickly, Fry-Trommald said.
“You don’t have to sell a Walla Walla sweet once it’s been tasted,” she said. “It sells itself. If we had 15,000 acres out there, we might be pushing a little bit harder. But we don’t have any trouble selling what we have.”
Fry-Trommald said she doesn’t have to put forth much effort for promotion.
“Then more people would want to know why they can’t get them,” she said. “I get calls from people all the time wanting to know where they are in Michigan, for instance. You’re probably not going to find them in Michigan.”
Fry-Trommald once received a letter from someone saying the committee was doing a poor job of letting customers nationwide know about availability.
“I would like everyone to experience a Walla Walla,” she said, “but it probably isn’t going to happen.”
She also received an email from a customer in North Carolina asking for 20 recipe brochures, because he ordered 20 bags of onions for friends.
“You have one person complaining because he can’t get them in East Timbuktu, and another man says, ‘I don’t care — send me 20 bags,’” she said. “That’s the way Walla Walla sweet lovers are. They will do what it takes to get them.”
About a decade ago, difficulties arose with “wannabe, counterfeit” onions grown outside the Walla Walla area in Spokane and Seattle, Fry-Trommald said.
The Walla Walla Valley is protected by a 1995 federal marketing order that designates a geographic area where the onions can be grown and still be called Walla Walla sweets.
In 2013, growers decided to continue the federal marketing order for another six years.
“We don’t want people in Portland growing onions and calling them Walla Walla sweets,” Fry-Trommald said.
Harvest also presents challenges.
Walla Walla onions are harvested by hand from mid-June through mid-August.
“They’re a very perishable product, so they need to be handled differently than a hybrid onion,” Michael F. Locati said.
Because of the high water content, they are vulnerable to bruising and fungus.
Some of the newer sweet onions entering the market are hybrid varieties. Some are even mechanically harvested, making them cheaper to grow, he said.
Michael F. Locati believes harvest equipment could be developed for Walla Walla sweet onions, but larger onion growers would need to bring in the technology, which would be costly. Many hybrid growers already have machinery in place, he said.
“We’re such a small organization, we don’t have the capability of funding it ourselves,” he said. “Nor will a equipment manufacturer put the money up for a small number of sales.”
How growers keep workers
Labor is a big issue.
“We have to be enticing to get workers to do this job,” Bud Locati said. “It’s a tough job to harvest these Walla Wallas, so we have to have enough presence here.”
The Locatis added asparagus, pumpkins and other vegetable crops to keep labor crews busy during the harvest season so they don’t move on to other areas.
“We try to get them started in April and guarantee work between two to three farmers — ourselves and other farms — just to say, ‘Stick with us until it’s time to pick apples,’” Bud Locati said. “If you don’t have anything to keep them around, that’s the scary part.”
The average age of Walla Walla sweet onion farmers is 55, Fry-Trommald said. Besides the Locatis, several other farmers are starting to think about retirement. She wonders what will happen with the existing 500 acres: Will it go lower or will someone come in and plant more?
A founding member and chairman of the marketing order, Michael F. Locati encourages young farmers like his nephew to get involved in the marketing committee.
“In my tenure, I’ve tried to streamline as much of the process as possible,” he said.
He will remain on the marketing committee for another year. He plans to retire from growing onions this year, remaining involved in the sales and packing house and interacting with customers. He will also be involved with the transition as his nephew and brother continue to farm the onions. The transition will take several years, he said.
Bud Locati also hopes to phase out after several more years.
As he takes his place, Michael J. Locati would like to see marketing eventually increase in conjunction with slow growth in acreage and the development of different types and colors of sweet onions.
Bud Locati admits to feeling a little apprehensive about his son entering an industry that is stagnant, but new blood may bring new ideas, he said.
“These younger folks will probably do more than we did,” he said. “They’ll do enough to keep the sweet onion market alive. When my dad was getting out, I was trying new things. He probably will try new things.”