Washington's state vegetable is a sweet favorite

By KEVIN McCULLEN

Tri-City Herald

WALLA WALLA, Wash. (AP) -- A sweet, homegrown and enduring family tradition is unfolding again this summer in the fields surrounding Walla Walla.

Walla Walla sweet onions, Washington's official state vegetable, are being hand-picked and carefully processed, packed and shipped to retail stores regionally and nationally or sold at roadside stands sprinkled throughout Walla Walla.

Wines from Walla Walla may be growing in reputation, but Walla Walla sweets have been coveted by consumers for decades because of their exceptional sweetness, mild flavor and jumbo size.

Since 1995, Walla Walla sweets have been designated a unique variety that can be grown only in a federally protected growing area encompassing the Walla Walla Valley and part of northeast Oregon under a U.S. Department of Agriculture marketing order.

Under the federal order, only onions that carry the genuine Walla Walla Sweet Onions seal can be legally marketed as Walla Walla sweets.

Growers preserve that uniqueness by growing and harvesting by hand their own seeds, which have traits developed over the generations by grower families -- many of them descendants of Italian immigrants to the Walla Walla Valley. Some who raise those sweets today are the second or third generation of their families to do so.

"We are preserving the integrity of the crop," said Kathryn Fry, manager of the Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Committee. "Walla Walla sweets are a unique onion with a unique story."

There are 27 growers on the marketing committee. They raise sweets on everything from half-acre plots to sell at local farmers' markets to producers who have over 200 acres and ship to major retail chains, Fry said.

In all, about 1,000 acres are in production this year, Fry said. That's down from a high of about 1,800 acres in the 1980s, said Mike Locati of Locati Farms, president of the committee and a third-generation grower.

"I'm proud to say no matter how big or small you are, everyone is listened to. This industry is based on the smallest to the biggest," Locati said last week, showing off a 100,000-square-foot packing facility he and seven other growers own.

"It's something I have tried to instill in the committee, that when we make a decision that we look for something beneficial to everyone."

Sweet onions comprise a fraction of all the U.S.-grown onions, a crop that is the nation's third-largest vegetable industry, said Kimberly Reddin, spokeswoman for the National Onion Association.

There are only about 1,000 growers of all onion varieties in the U.S., and Washington in 2008 ranked as the top state with 21,720 acres and 1.24 billion pounds produced, she said.

But sweet onions, which also include such varieties as Vidalia, Maui and Texas sweets, are a "small but mighty" segment of the industry because of their popularity, Reddin said.

Vidalias, grown in all or parts of 20 Georgia counties, are No. 1 in sales among sweet onions, representing one-third of all onion sales nationally even though they -- like Walla Wallas -- are a seasonal product, said Wendy Brannen, executive director of the Vidalia Onion Committee.

Growers of Walla Walla sweets and their fans, though, view themselves as the sweetest of the sweets.

"Ours are thicker, more succulent than Vidalias," Locati said. "I like the texture of our Walla Wallas better. They are a true sweet onion."

This year's crop, particularly the super colossals, are exceptionally sweet, said Ben Cavalli Jr., owner of Cavalli Onion Acres and a third-generation grower.

"I haven't had this many onions in a long time. It's crazy," said Cavalli, who supplied eight bags of his onions for a taping during this weekend's sweet onion festival of "Glutton for Punishment," a Food Network show.

"Man, are they sweet. The quality is really good this year," said Cavalli, who credits slow, steady rains during a cool and wet late spring and the area's rich soil.

A mild climate also contributes to the properties of the sweets, which are about 90 percent water and have a low sulfur content that yields a mild flavor. But Walla Wallas also have a short shelf life and are fragile enough that they must be harvested by hand, Locati said.

Harvest this year began in late June, delayed at least 10 days by the cool late spring. It's expected to run through mid-August, and growers typically harvest about 32,500 pounds per acre, Fry said.

Processing and packing varies by the size of the operation. At Walla Walla River Packing & Storage, crews last week moved bins of freshly harvested onions from a truck into a storage room where they were heat cured for three days, a process that helps extend the shelf life to up to three weeks, Locati said.

After that, onions are placed on a conveyor, weighed and sorted by a computer program that directs them onto a lane with onions of the same size and weight for packing. Boxes then are placed in a large cold storage room to await shipping within seven days.

Walla Walla sweets shipped through Walla Walla River are open market. "There are no contracts. We don't know where they are going until a purchase order shows up," Locati said.

Packing and shipping at Cavalli's is more modest. Inside a shed Cavalli built, onions are sorted on a 23-year-old, custom-made machine and slipped into various-sized bags.

Cavalli sells his onions to local supermarkets, at a roadside stand and through a website, http://homepages.bmi.net/cavalli. Last week, employee Kim Davis was busy packing and labeling boxes for shipment to homes across the United States.

The Internet is the newest addition to the homespun growing and packing methods at Cavalli's, where Ben's wife Bobbie and brother Robert also are involved in a family business that began after his grandfather arrived in the valley from Italy in the 1920s.

Italian immigrant farmers were heavily involved in Walla Walla's gardening industry, and helped develop the sweet. A Frenchman who came to Walla Walla in the late 1890s, Peter Pieri, brought with him from Corsica a sweet onion seed that was the genesis for the modern Walla Walla sweet.

Locati's grandfather, who arrived in Walla Walla in 1905, started his own operation in 1927. Cavalli, who farms his own 40 acres and leases another 15, said his grandfather began his farm after collecting culls from roadsides and selling them.

All growers in the committee today are family operations. "There haven't been too many corporations trying to get in on this because it's such a small industry," Locati said.

Seeds remain pivotal today to growing succulent sweets, and all those involved in the marketing committee grow their own. Growers carefully inspect bulbs from freshly harvested fields to set aside the best to be preserved and replanted later to produce seed for future crops.

"We're all growing our own varieties handed down for generations," Locati said.

He selects bulbs for seed based on their shape, neck and root size and mass, while Cavalli said he looks for onions with a globe shape and big neck. Typically, Locati keeps up to five bins full of onions for seed.

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