United Onions USA expects to reach 8,000 acres soon

By DAVE WILKINS

Capital Press

Onion farmers in Idaho and Eastern Oregon have established a new cooperative. United Onions USA Inc. was formed in late September.

Thirty-five to 40 growers, with a total of 7,200 acres of onions in the Idaho-Eastern Oregon area, have signed on. Membership is growing and should represent about 8,000 acres soon, co-op leaders said.

"We've been growing (membership) by about 5 percent a week since the co-op formed," said board chairman Dan Corn, an onion grower near Nyssa, Ore.

The new organization is similar to the United potato co-ops that have sprung up in recent years, but it won't attempt to impose acreage restrictions or set prices.

Its main purpose is to help stabilize onion prices through the free exchange of supply and market trend information. Grower-members may designate a shipper to receive information and act as a marketing agent on their behalf.

Armed with good information, growers are expected to make planting decisions "just as effectively as if we mandated acreage decisions," Corn said. "Good market information should lead to good business decisions."

Malheur County, Ore., and southwest Idaho produce a big share of the nation's stored yellow Spanish onion crop. In a typical year, more than 20,000 semi-truck loads are shipped out of the area.

For some farmers in the area, onions may make up 25 percent of their total acreage, but 75 percent of their revenue, Corn said.

The onion market has been volatile so far this marketing season, he said. Shipping point prices for 50-pound bags of U.S. No. 1 jumbo-sized yellow Spanish onions have been as high as $10 and as low as $4.50. Mostly recently, prices have been around $5.50 to $6 per bag.

"It appears to me that the fundamentals are there for a much stronger market," Corn said.

Members of the co-op will pay first-year dues of $300 to become shareholders. An annual assessment -- initially set at $1 per acre -- will also be charged.

Members have already begun meeting weekly to discuss supply and marketing information -- something they couldn't legally do before.

"The main thing we were trying to do was create an organization so we could legally talk about the markets and pricing under the umbrella of Capper-Volstead," said Joe Farmer, secretary-treasurer of the group, referring to the Co-operative Marketing Associations Act. The act, first passed by Congress in 1922, gives ag product associations some exemptions from federal antitrust laws.

"We're trying through our membership to gather more accurate information," he said.

The co-op is structured to allow growers in other regions to join. Growers in the Columbia Basin, for instance, could start their own district within the existing co-op, Farmer said.

The co-op is closing in on 8,000 acres, or 35 to 40 percent of the total onion acreage in Eastern Oregon and southwest Idaho.

"We think we will be at 50 percent by the end of the year, if not more," Farmer said.

Online

United Onions USA Inc.: www.unitedonions-usa.com

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