'People took a blood bath on onions last year'
By SEAN ELLIS
Farmers in the nation's main onion-growing region planted about 10 percent fewer onion acres this year, as low prices last year caused many growers to turn to other higher-priced crops.
But industry leaders hope higher prices this year will result in onion acres in Idaho and Malheur County in eastern Oregon returning to normal levels in 2013. That region produces more than 25 percent of all fresh bulb onions consumed in the United States.
According to USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service, growers in Malheur County will harvest 10,300 acres this year, down 1,000 acres from 2011, and Idaho farmers will harvest 8,100 acres, down 1,100 from the previous year.
Prices for a 50-pound bag of onions dipped below $4 last year, which was right near the break-even point, said Paul Skeen, president of the Malheur County Onion Growers Association. At the same time, he said, dry bean prices were near record highs and prices for sugar beets, corn and wheat were also high.
"People took a blood bath on onions last year and I think everybody backed off as far as acres," he said. "I think that's why acres are down. With other commodity prices so good, it's tough to take a whupping like we did last year and not start looking for alternatives."
Yields are also down significantly, Skeen and others say, a result of excessive heat, hail damage early in the season and disease issues.
"I think all of that is having an impact on yields," Skeen said. "For me, yields will probably be down 7 percent when the dust settles."
Onion prices right now are in the $7 range for a 50-pound bag and there's hope that acres could rebound next year if they stay up.
"It's hard to say. It probably depends on what the crop alternatives are and how they're doing price-wise compared with onions," said Bob Komoto, manager of Ontario Produce, which gets half its onions from Idaho and half from Oregon.
But Komoto said that besides acres and yields being down, harvest is off to a much earlier start than last year, and the region is about 1,000 truckload shipments ahead of 2011 at this time.
That all adds up to having less in storage, which means there's a decent chance of having a sustained good price for the whole year, he said.
Skeen said he's confident that will happen.
"Acres are down, yields are down. It should bring the market back up," he said. "We really believe that as soon as we get everything put away and there's not so much pressure, prices will start working their way back up."