Prices for onions shipped from Oregon, Idaho and Washington are up by 30% to 50% from their pre-Thanksgiving lull, when shipments sagged and packers’ profit margins fell close to breakeven.
A 50-pound sack of jumbo yellow onions from southwest Idaho and nearby Malheur County, Ore., on Jan. 24 sold for $9 to $9.50, USDA said in its daily National Potato and Onion Market Report.
Onions from the Columbia Basin in Washington and the Umatilla basin in Oregon, where transportation costs are lower, sold for $8 to $8.50.
On Nov. 6, Idaho-Malheur onions sold for $6 to $7, and Columbia-Umatilla onions sold for $5.50 to $6.
Onions are big business in the region. Washington, southwestern Idaho, southeastern Oregon and west-central Oregon led the U.S. in fall-storage onion production last year, said Greg Yielding, National Onion Association executive vice president.
Nevada was next, followed by New York.
Grant Kitamura, partner in Baker & Murakami Produce, a major packer-shipper in Ontario, Ore., said the business has seen the traditional rush, with heavy demand, after New Year’s Day.
“And now it has leveled off to a more normal level and the market is holding, which is a very good sign,” he said.
Supplies are manageable, and “I’m optimistic we can hold the market steady, and hopefully have some higher prices,” Kitamura said.
That could happen if demand stays steady and the Idaho-Malheur market sees smaller sheds finish shipments in January and February while larger players keep shipping into April.
Holiday demand helped onion prices, as did available supplies dropping as some sheds reduced operating hours, said Mick Davie, with USDA Specialty Crops Market News in Idaho Falls.
Mexico’s participation in the U.S. market could affect onion prices, he said.
“If they start coming, we could see pressure on prices,” Davie said. “If they don’t bring any volume, I don’t see why this thing can’t stay where it is. Last year, the Mexican market stayed strong enough that those onions stayed and were not brought into the U.S. This year, we don’t know.”
Another unknown factor in future pricing is the extent of shrink on remaining onions in storage, he said.
Oregon State University Malheur Experiment Station Director Stuart Reitz said possibly 5% of the 2019 crop from Malheur County, Ore., and southwestern Idaho sustained damage or was not harvested due to rain and freezing weather.
“Prices might be really high, but if you don’t have as many onions to sell, it’s kind of a wash at that point,” he said.
USDA Jan. 24 reported shipments to date were down by nearly 13% from a year earlier in Idaho-Malheur, and by nearly 8% and 12% in the Columbia and Umatilla basins, respectively.
“Last year was kind of an anomaly with Idaho and Oregon because of the bumper crop they had last year (2018),” Davie said. The Columbia Basin’s year-earlier shipments also reflected a strong crop.