The Walla Walla sweet onion deal lasts only about 10 weeks, so onion growers inside and outside the bounds of the marketing order also grow other sweet onions.
Hybrid sweets are relatively hardy and storable — two descriptions that do not fit the Walla Walla sweets, growers said.
“They complement our overall program,” said Stefan Matheny, product development and research manager with Hermiston, Ore.-based River Point Farms.
River Point offers a Hermiston yellow sweet variety, which goes through December, and has offered a fall-winter EverMild onion since 2010, Matheny said.
“We try to be a year-round onion producer, including the sweets,” said Bill Dean, grower with River Point and a member of the Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Committee’s advisory board.
More resilient than Walla Walla sweets, many hybrid sweets are easier to get out of the fields, said Ben Cavalli, owner of Walla Walla, Wash.-based Cavalli’s Onion Acres.
“The hybrids, people can harvest by machine and put them in storage,” he said.
Hybrids, it should be noted, don’t compete against Walla Wallas, said Bryon Magnaghi, general manager of the Walla Walla Gardeners’ Association in Walla Walla.
“They’re not shipped at the same time, but it enables us to extend our shipping season,” he said, noting that the Gardners’ Association ships hybrids in the fall, through December.
Involvement with hybrid sweets varies from grower to grower, said Dan Borer, general manager of Keystone Fruit Marketing, Greencastle, Pa.
“We don’t do a tremendous amount of business with that onion because it tends not to be reliably sweet at this point,” he said.
He also said hybrid sweets are gaining market share, particularly in the West.
“A lot of sweets out West fit into that general sweet category,” he said.
Sweetness among hybrids can vary widely, he said.
“But if you state a true variety, like the Walla Walla sweet, and you get the true consistency, that’s the key to success,” he said.
There’s always a danger some consumers might confuse a hybrid with a Walla Walla sweet, said Mike Locati, chairman of the Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Committee and owner of Locati Farms in Walla Walla.
“There’s always a concern of mine that we do not dilute the fact we’re growing a Walla Walla and we kind of stand apart,” said Locati, who does not grow any hybrid sweets.
He also said he appreciates the role hybrids play.
“What it really does for the area as a whole is you’re able to continue sales into your market if you have a quality product,” he said.
Some growers say it makes it easier to find reliable customers longer-term, Locati said.
“If you have a customer base and they’re willing to stay with you into that, it’s beneficial,” he said.
It might create customers for the Walla Walla sweets that otherwise might not be there, Locati said.
“It works fine, as long as the buyers and public know it’s not the Walla Walla and don’t get the perception that we’re trying just to extend our season and trying to push something that’s not the same thing,” he said.
Walla Walla-based grower Terry Bergevin said the hybrid season has little effect on Walla Walla sweets.
“They’re cheaper to raise, just from the harvest standpoint, but there’s much more competition that can affect your market,” said Bergevin, who supplies hybrid sweets to Pasco, Wash.-based Agri-Pack.