Grower emphasizes every onion is handled by people
By DEAN BRICKEY
East Oregonian Publishing Group
HERMISTON, Ore. -- Chefs in fancy restaurants and cooks in humble kitchens have faced the same problem for centuries.
Some light a candle while peeling and slicing sweet onions to help prevent tears. Others cut the vegetables under water.
But River Point Farms of Hermiston has revolutionized onion handling in all kitchens with the introduction Oct. 1 of its EverMild sweet onion.
River Point Farms is harvesting the first domestic crop of its fall-winter sweet onion. Company managers say it will be available for a longer period than other U.S. onions, beginning this month and remaining available through early spring. They say it's "mild-mannered with a sweet disposition."
This is the third year River Point Farms has grown the EverMild onion, but this is the first time it's been introduced to the mass market.
The EverMild onion yields about 38.5 tons per acre, about the same as other varieties the company grows. The company grew 375 acres of the sweet onion this year, producing nearly 29 million pounds.
Sweet onions are selling for $11-$13 per 40-pound carton, or about 30 cents per pound, the National Potato and Onion Report stated Oct. 4. Marketers for the EverMilds say retail prices should range from 99 cents to $1.99 per pound.
Delbert Gehrke, the company's farm manager, led eight food writers from around the country and another dozen folks on a tour of River Point Farms' onion operation. The tour began in a field about five miles east of Stanfield, where a crew had been hand-topping red onions.
Gehrke said the EverMild crop already had been harvested, but he wanted to show the reporters how the workers cut the tops from the onions and bagged the bulbs to dry for a few days.
Minos Athanassiadis, lead marketer for the new onion, stressed how the workers treat the premium onions.
"Every single onion gets touched by hand," he said.
Gehrke said the company pays field workers a piece rate rather than hourly.
"The really good ones will make $15-$18 an hour," he said.
Steffanie Smith, CEO of River Point Farms, said the burlap sacks, containing about 60 pounds each, remain in the field 7-10 days so the onions can cure and dry before they're loaded into trucks and taken to processing or storage.
Athanassiadis pointed out that specialty onion growers have shifted their purpose in recent years. Instead of focusing on yield, they're tuned into flavor, smell and appearance. He also said the EverMild will not take the place of other onions on the market, such as Hermiston Sweets, which are River Point Farms' answer to Walla Walla Sweets.
"It's not so much a replacement," he said. "What it provides is a domestically grown alternative to imported onions."
Smith said the EverMild has better storage characteristics.
"The Hermiston Sweet won't store," she said. "We're going to be able to store and market this onion through April."
Company President Bob Hale caught up with the tour group at River Point Farms' storage facilities southwest of Hermiston. He accompanied the group as it viewed red onions being stored in bulk and EverMild onions stored in stacked cubitainers containing 1,000 pounds each.
Each tote has a bar-coded sticker that gives the container a number that is part of the farm's enterprise resource planning system. The numbers, kept in a computer system, tell farm managers which field the onions came from and which workers handled them. The system allows tracking from field to market.
Computers maintain the temperature at 68 degrees Fahrenheit and the humidity at less than 70 percent in the storage sheds.
"This is what maintains the sweetness of these onions through March," Athanassiadis said.
Hale said the EverMild storage building is unique, with its slotted concrete floors built above plenums that move massive amounts of conditioned air.
"We're breaking new ground," he said. "I don't think you'll find a building like this anywhere else in the world."