Regardless of a capricious economy, growers and shippers of Walla Walla sweet onions say their sales have been steady and they expect the same this season.
“The last few years, our sales have been fairly consistent with our Walla Wallas,” said Stefan Matheny, product development and research manager with River Point Farms in Hermiston, Ore.
The product, like sweet onions in general, can bring a price premium, but not even the recession has cut into that much, said Harry Hamada, manager of Walla Walla River Packing & Storage LLC, Walla Walla, Wash.
“We’ve been pretty fortunate. We haven’t seemed to be too affected,” he said.
Walla Walla sweets require extra labor to harvest and pack, which can prop up expenses, but that’s not the real economic pressure, said Ben Cavalli, owner of Walla Walla-based Cavalli’s Onion Acres.
“What’s really killing us is the freight because the price of fuel right now is just tremendous,” he said.
He said shipping a 40-pound box of onions by truck between Washington and California is $5.
“That’s ridiculous,” Cavalli said.
Soaring input costs have applied economic pressure on the industry, said Mike Locati, Walla Walla-based grower and chairman of the Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Committee.
“But I don’t think it has affected us on the consumer side,” he said.
The limits of a 10-week season and narrow geographic boundaries for production as defined by a federal marketing order bring some recession-blunting benefits, said Bryon Magnaghi, general manager of the Walla Walla-based Walla Walla Gardeners’ Association.
“Our numbers don’t match Vidalia, so we try to hit that niche period and move our product,” he said.
A bad economy also can benefit a retail-oriented product like Walla Walla sweets, said Dan Borer, general manager of Keystone Fruit Marketing, Greencastle, Pa.
“Maybe it’s the consumer looking for value or it’s cooking at home. Whatever it is, it’s been very good,” he said.
“When the economy took a downturn, we saw a big transition of people going out to eat to cooking at home, and they would treat themselves to a Walla Walla onion at home,” he said.
Sales have been steady at Brooks, Ore.-based Curry & Co., as well, said Matt Curry, president.
“Onions tend to be pretty inelastic so during this recession period, we’ve maintained steady sales of both storage and sweet onions,” he said.
Onions, he added, have the advantage of being a staple item, although consumers could be timing purchases to coincide with paydays, Curry said.
“It seems that consumers might do one larger shopping trip with their start of the month paycheck and try to get their core items for the month purchased while there is money in their pocket,” he said.