Organics are still only a niche business for many onion growers and shippers along the Columbia Basin in Oregon and Washington, but they say it’s a growing niche.
“Retailers are wanting more organic, and it seems like their demand grows every year,” said Shawn Hartley, owner of Syracuse, Utah-based Utah Onions Inc., which grows and ships product out of the Columbia Basin.
Organics comprise probably no more than 2% of Utah onion sales, but the share seems certain to increase, Hartley said.
“It’s going up. We never have enough,” he said.
The desert that surrounds the growing region is conducive to organic production, Hartley said.
“The Columbia Basin does have good organic production up by Hermiston, (Ore.),” he said.
Organic onions are becoming more pervasive across the growing region, said Brenden Kent, vice president of Prosser-based Sunset Produce LLC.
“It’s becoming a little bit more common and there are more shippers handling it,” Kent said.
The growth trend should continue at least steadily upward, Kent said.
“I expect that to actually grow a little bit, as far as productivity and acres. It seems like it’s a good area to grow over the next two or three years, without a doubt,” he said.
How fast it will grow is a matter of speculation, Kent said.
“The category is growing. I guess this is argumentative, but I would say the economy is getting a little bit better and people are having a little bit more confidence in their food purchases and are probably spending a little bit more, and that’s why we’re seeing the return of organics to the level that it was probably five, six years ago now,” he said.
There are additional challenges in organic production, even in a region considered ideal for the category, Kent said.
But the payoff comes in higher demand each year, Kent said.
“I would expect that market to have another decent year,” he said.
This year, growing conditions presented a few additional hurdles for the organic crop, Kent said.
“The organics have been a little more challenging this year, because of the warm weather and more weeds,” he said. “We’ve had heavier weeding and have had to intensify cultural practices to make sure they’re growing good. But I’d expect organics to have another above-average year, for sure.”
Bryon Magnaghi, produce trader with Seattle-based wholesale distributor FC Bloxom, agreed.
“It’s continually growing. It seems like there’s more growers that are increasing their acreage on organics,” Magnaghi said.
Demand is increasing in all sectors — not just retailers, Magnaghi said.
“There’s demand for processors and consumers. In fact, there are some growers that are totally organic growers,” he said.