2013 a challenging year for onion growers

An onion field near Caldwell, Idaho, is harvested Oct. 15. Farmers in the region say hot summer temperatures and a series of untimely rainstorms made 2013 a challenging growing year.

Onion production in Idaho and eastern Oregon could be below average again this year due to disease pressure and weather-related factors.

But growers in the region that produces about 25 percent of the nation’s fresh bulb onion supply say quality is good.

After suffering through one of the hottest summers ever recorded in the Treasure Valley and disease pressure that increased because of the heat, onion growers had to wait longer than normal to harvest their crop because of a string of late-season rainstorms.

“It was a long harvest and it was a tough year,” said Oregon farmer Paul Skeen, president of the Malheur County Onion Growers Association. “The rains made it a longer harvest than normal. There was at least a week’s worth of time where we didn’t go because of the rains.”

The moisture was sorely needed but it came at a very inopportune time, said Oregon farmer Reid Saito.

“We waited all summer for some rain and when it finally came, it was at the worst possible moment as far as the onion harvest goes,” he said. “Some guys had a really nice year and got their onions off before the rains but others are still struggling to get them in.”

Farmers in Idaho and eastern Oregon harvested 19,100 acres in 2012, down 1,400 from the year before, and lower yields caused production to fall to 14.2 million hundredweight, an 8 percent decline from 2011.

The USDA won’t release estimates for onion production this year because of federal budget cuts, but industry officials believe 2013 acreage was close to last year’s total.

Significantly hotter summer temperatures this year caused an increase in thrips, which are a vector for the iris yellow spot virus, which can decrease yields.

“The heat makes (thrips) more active (and) we had a lot of virus pressure this year,” said Stuart Reitz, a crop system extension agent at Oregon State University’s Malheur County research center.

As onions become stressed from the heat, “symptoms of the virus also become more pronounced and that complicates the problem,” he added.

The heat itself was a big problem for onion growers this year, Skeen said. “There was too much heat for too long. Once the heat hit, it never let up. It was every day, every day, every day.”

As a result of the heat and virus pressure, yields this year were extremely variable, he said.

“Yields were all over the board,” he said. “They were from very good to, at least for me, some historic lows.”

The net result of the challenges growers faced in 2013 could be decreased production from the nation’s main onion-growing region, Skeen said.

Sign up for our Top Stories newsletter

Recommended for you