Idaho-Oregon onion festival makes a comeback
By SEAN ELLIS
ONTARIO, Ore. -- The Idaho-Eastern Oregon Onion Festival returns this year after a seven-year absence.
It will be held Aug. 3 during the Malheur County Fair and include cooking contests, tasting demonstrations and an onion dressing competition.
The festival is making a return at the request of growers, said Kit Kamo, executive director of the Snake River Economic Development Alliance, a private non-profit group that is helping coordinate the event.
"This year, there was a big demand to get it going again," she said. "During the Idaho and Oregon onion growers' annual meeting in February, about eight of them came up to me and said, 'We really need to do it again.'"
More than 20,000 acres of big-bulb Spanish onions are grown in southwestern Idaho and eastern Oregon and the industry is the backbone of many communities in the region.
It is the nation's largest onion-growing region in terms of total volume and farmers in the valley produce 1 billion pounds a year, about 25 percent of all fresh bulb onions consumed in the United States.
"We ought to be promoting the onion industry in this area," Kamo said.
There are 40 onion packing sheds in the valley and the industry's annual economic impact is estimated at about $1.3 billion.
But as incredible as it sounds, growers have discovered that a lot of people in the Treasure Valley don't know onions are produced on a large scale in southwestern Idaho and eastern Oregon, said Paul Skeen, president of Oregon's Malheur County Onion Growers Association.
"We're glad to have it back to let people know how important agriculture, and onions, are to our region," he said.
The event was held annually during the Malheur County Fair from 1997-2005. It was started by farmers but later handed over to a local chamber of commerce group because growers were too busy during that time of year to effectively organize it, said Sherise Jones, marketing director of the Idaho-Eastern Oregon Onion Committee.
The event lost momentum soon after and folded.
Kamo said the festival's resurgence is due to a coalition of grower groups, economic development associations and agricultural-related entities such as seed and fertilizer companies, working together.
"We all decided, let's do it together," she said. "It's a really good partnership with a lot of different folks."
Jones said the festival has a lot of solid groups backing it now and she expects a resurgence of the event.
"I think we all figured out it takes a village," she said. "We're really happy to be a part of it under a local community organization that has brought a lot of energy and people behind it."