Initial headlines were grim. Texas onion shippers feared the worst as a late-season freeze swept the Rio Grande Valley and Winter Garden growing regions in late January and early February.
It was difficult to tell whether onions suffered significant damage from freezing temperatures that lasted several days on two occasions.
The good news is that onions are a hardy plant, shippers said.
“These onions have been bred and selected by seed companies and breeders for freeze resistance,” said Mike Martin, president of Mission, Texas-based Rio Queen Citrus Inc., and its sister company onion shipper Elmore & Stahl Inc. “From what we’re seeing, we’re most concerned about early onions, and at this point we’re not seeing any issues.”
Problems like bolting and double centers will not be apparent for a few weeks, and even then those problems likely would affect only the earliest onions.
“The later varieties we plant for an April and May harvest are almost like bullets,” Martin said.
The true test will be when the high temperatures and sunny skies return, said Curtis DeBerry, owner of Boerne, Texas-based Progreso Produce Ltd.
“Any bolting that’s going to happen will happen then,” he said. “I think we may be down 10-15% from what we originally anticipated. We still need a little more time.”
Harvesting could start as early as March 10-15 for some producers, said Don Ed Holmes, owner of The Onion House LLC, Weslaco, Texas.
“The bulk will be more like the 25th of March,” Holmes said. “The crop was tracking ahead of schedule about two weeks and the cold weather set it back in its normal time slot.”
Tracy Fowler, general manager of Raleigh, N.C.-based L&M Cos. Texas operations, said he expects to have good supplies starting around April 1.
“Our yields are going to be a little higher than last year,” he said. “I hate to say something like a bumper crop, but it looks like we’ll have pretty large yields this year.”
Shippers do not expect quite as strong a market this season. Where sweet onions were selling for $40 for a 50-pound bag and whites peaked around $65 a bag, last year, prices in late February were closer to a more normal return, shippers said.
“I think we’ll have a much more realistic number this season,” DeBerry said. “We’ll probably have the $8-10 deal most of the way through the prime sizes. We may see some spikes due to weather but that’s a normal market.”
Holmes said ideally, growers would like to see a little more than that.
“Anything lower than $7 and you’re back to a break-even situation,” he said. “That $40 is an unheard of deal. Even in 2003 and 1973 when we had real high markets we didn’t have those kind of numbers.”
Bill Grasmick of Granada, Colo.-based William Grasmick Co. Inc., said some of the other areas should get cleared up before Texas starts shipping.
“Looks to me like if we can get this … we’re kind of clogged up with Mexico and the Northwest and Peru…if we can get these early Mexican onions out the market will slow down here in another 10 days or so,” he said.
Grasmick said his company’s South Texas acreage is down slightly this year.
“It looks like it will be a more average crop this year,” he said. “We’re not seeing as good of stands as you’d like.”
Lower temperatures hit the Winter Garden area west of San Antonio, but onions seemed to have fared well, said J Allen Carnes, president of Uvalde, Texas-based Winter Garden Produce.
“Onions have been hurt, but it’s not a total loss by any means,” Carnes said. “Most of the damage is in the young stuff. There’s a chance for them to not size up or for a few more seeders.”
Carnes said the harvest should get kicked off around May 1.
Acreage has rebounded significantly in the Winter Garden over the past few years.
In 2009-10, about 1,800 acres were planted, compared with 3,000 this season.
“We’re about right where we were last year at our operation,” Carnes said.
The Winter Garden typically produces a clean crop, he said, which could explain the bump in acreage.
“Once we get through the winters that can affect the stands, the quality we see in May and June is excellent,” he said. “We don’t see a lot of issues with seeders and double centers.”