Early onion harvest in Treasure Valley. ( Courtesy Idaho-Eastern Oregon Onion Committee )

Idaho and eastern Oregon onion grower-shippers were off to a very hot start in mid-August.

With temperatures topping 100 degrees, the U.S. Department of Agriculture market news reported that 2018 crop Idaho jumbo yellows in 50-pound sacks sold for mostly $7 on Aug. 10. The USDA said extremely high temperatures, above 105 degrees, were curtailing harvest.

Onion harvest began in early August for some of the early varieties, said Stuart Reitz, Oregon State extension professor and Malheur County Extension agent based in Ontario, Ore.

The late heat won’t spoil the promise of the crop, he said.

“The main harvest won’t really kick in for a little while longer, but overall, things have looked pretty good. We had, you know, pretty good growing conditions up until mid-July when we started getting the heat coming on,” he said.

Reitz said favorable growing conditions earlier in the season established good stands.

“We’ll see how it all shakes out in the end, but for right now everything seems like it’s been a good year,” he said.

“Our onion crop is on schedule with sizing and projected yields looking to be on par with our historical average,” said Troy Seward, president and owner of Golden West Produce Co., Parma, Idaho.

“We have enjoyed long, hot days with exceptional heat units, and expect quality to be top notch for the storage crop.”

Favorable weather in May and June allowed the onion crop to develop nicely and the crop was “made” before the extreme heat hit the region, said Kay Riley, general manager of Snake River Produce, Nyssa, Ore.

Onions in the Treasure Valley look average to above average, said Eddie Rodriguez, owner of Partners Produce Inc., Payette, Idaho.

“In walking fields the onions are sizing up well,” he said, noting that size profiles are slightly bigger than a year ago.

Rodriguez predicted the onion market should see an orderly transition from southern states to the Northwest.

“We hope to see a decent market for our growers and good movement throughout the year,” he said.

Riley said export markets may be improved in response to extreme heat and drought in Europe, which is expected to lead to a decline in onion output from Holland and Spain. Eastern U.S. and Canadian onion output could be down this year in response to erratic weather, he said.

The heat caused growers to make adjustments in their harvest schedules but has not hurt crop quality, said Herb Haun, chairman of the Idaho-Eastern Oregon Onion Committee, Parma, Idaho.

Grower-shippers will be very active by the week of Aug. 20 with early varieties.

While some direct-seeded onions were being harvested in mid-August, direct-seeded storage onion supply and shipments will increase in September, shippers said.

Harvest will continue into October.

Last year, growers had to delay planting because of rain. The USDA reported that extended wet conditions that continued until early May delayed plantings by several weeks.

This year, Reitz said growers were able to plant on a normal schedule and he said the yields are expected to be good.

According to the committee website, growers in the Snake River Valley of Idaho and eastern Oregon produce more storage onions than any region in America, with planted area typically topping 21,000 acres.

In 2017, the USDA reported planted acreage in the Idaho and Malheur County, Ore., region totaled about 19,200 acres.

Yellow onions account for 90% of the acreage, according to website, with white and red making up the rest.


Big yields

Onion yields in the eastern Oregon region can average 800-900 cwt. per acre, or about 40-45 tons per acre, Reitz said.

“With drip irrigation taking a bigger and bigger role here, yields and quality have been improving. We can easily see fields over 1,000 cwt. per acre, up to 1,200 cwt. per acre, or 50-60 tons per acre.”

“The yields here are significantly higher than anywhere else in the country,” Reitz said.

Although there wasn’t a great amount of rain last winter, growers had sufficient irrigation water in reservoirs for the 2018 crop.

Growers who use drip irrigation are now estimated at near 60% of the acreage, with the balance irrigated by water down the furrows of the field.

Growers put new drip tape in every year a couple of inches deep and then pull the tape out before harvest, Reitz said.

While harvest is mostly mechanized for onions, Reitz said one exception is white onions. Those are put in burlap bags to finish curing in the fields.


Future changes

Drip irrigation has brought better water conservation to the region, as it requires only about half of the water needed for flood or furrow irrigation. Drip irrigation has also resulted in savings of fertilizer, Reitz said.

“You can spoon-feed what the plants need through the drip systems and you can run some of the pesticides, insecticides, fungicides and herbicides through the irrigation system,” he said.

Having drip irrigation can help growers manage the hot weather hitting the crop, he said.

“Just being able to kind of balance the plants’ needs and reduce stress on the plants has been a significant benefit,” he said.

The region has seen some consolidation of growers, packers and marketers over the years, Reitz said.

Labor is an issue for growers and packers, and Reitz said growers are looking to automate even more going forward.

“Some of the reason for the automation is labor ... you just can’t find enough people to do everything that needs to be done,” he said.

Some packing sheds are putting in more automated packing lines.

Weeding the onion crop is still an important part of the production in the region, but he said getting hand-weeding crews when you need them and having enough people to cover all of the ground has been problematic.