“Local consumption is tremendous and it’s absolutely important, but it’s also a nationally recognized name when it comes to sweet onions, so we’ve enjoyed good U.S. and Canadian market penetration,” said Dan Borer, general manager of Keystone Fruit Marketing, Walla, Walla.
Despite the nationally known Walla Walla name, most of the Walla Walla crop stays in the general area it’s grown, with Seattle and California being large markets.
“Most of them stay west of the Mississippi,” Borer said.
The Midwest also buys a significant number of Walla Walla sweets, said Harry Hamada, manager of Walla Walla River Packing and Storage LLC.
Eastern distribution, though still an option, has declined in recent years, grower-shippers say.
“There used to be a lot more onions going back East, but we have so much competition and with the price of fuel and freight now, most of the Walla Walla onions stay on the West Coast,” said Ben Cavalli, owner of Cavalli’s Onion Acres, Walla Walla.
The West Coast and central U.S. demand is enough to handle the crop, and the price for Walla Walla sweets this year is expected to be fairly high.
“The market for sweet onions last fall was very expensive, and I think it will continue to be that way since the weather hasn’t cooperated in a lot of the areas that sweet onions are grown and volume is down,” Cavalli said.
Of course, the fact that Walla Walla sweet onions are the state vegetable of Washington is always a positive for sales.
“Promotions for our onions as the state vegetable are a great thing to have behind you,” Borer said.
In addition, locals appreciate the history behind this crop.
“There’s a sense of pride about these onions,” said Kathy Fry-Trommald, executive director of the Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Committee.
This year is the 113th Walla Walla sweet onion harvest.
New customers are also important to the industry.
The Walla Walla Sweet Onion Festival helps grow local excitement about onion harvest each year.
“The festival helps get the word out,” Cavalli said. “It’s a helpful promoter because any type of word you can get out is very crucial, especially if you are getting new people who have never heard of Walla Walla onions to try them,” he said.
The onions are very unique, with a mild, sweet taste and a high water content, which makes them especially juicy, something growers want potential new consumers to know.
“They just have to try it. That’s one reason we’re pushing for restaurants to use them, to help give people a taste,” Cavalli said.
Restaurant use is important, and it’s growing, Borer said.
“Restaurant use has increased regionally, and use is in various forms, either raw or cooked,” Borer said.
However, foodservice use is still a small percentage compared to retail sales.
There are some regional restaurants, both fast food and higher-end places, that feature Walla Wallas each spring when harvest begins.
Burgerville, a restaurant chain in the Washington and Oregon area, runs a big ad leading up to the onion harvest that features Walla Walla sweet onion rings. The ad includes a countdown to when the product is available.
“People sit on the edge of their seat waiting for those onion rings,” Fry-Trommald said.
Growers and marketers agree that the local market, both in foodservice and in retail settings, will continue to be the bread and butter of the Walla Walla deal.
“It seems to be more important every day as people try to focus on what’s good and local and healthy,” Borer said.