Onions grow at L&M Cos. Inc.’s fields in Calipatria, Calif. ( Courtesy L&M Cos. Inc. )

An onion shortage may bring tears to the eyes of retailers and consumers, but it also appears to be setting up a strong market going into the summer months, suppliers say.

“The general consensus is across the U.S. and really globally, we’re looking at a very tight market,” said Lauren Dees, marketing manager with Lake Park, Ga.-based grower-shipper Generation Farms. 

“There’s an onion shortage, really, and in Georgia, we’re actually growing reds, whites and yellows and hope to be able to fill that gap during our season.”

The Vidalia season got underway just after Easter, and Generation was scheduled to launch its conventional program of reds, white and yellows in early May, with supplies expected to last until late July or early August, Dees said.

“Expect pretty solid markets,” she said.

Onion markets, in general, had begun to “level off” a bit in late April, following a turbulent February and March, said Christine Lindner, marketing associate with Cambria, Wis.-based Alsum Farms & Produce Inc.

“White onion prices are much higher than a year ago, due to shortage of acres in Mexico and Texas,” Lindner said. 

“Overall, it’s been exports driving sales due to shortages in Europe.”

Reds and whites were fetching their highest prices in years, said Derek Ennis, sales director for potatoes and onions with Raleigh, N.C.-based L&M Cos. Inc.

“The market for reds and whites has been the best we’ve seen in seven or eight years, and we expect that this summer will be a good year for onion sales,” he said.

Two factors combined to create the surging onion market, said Dan Borer, general manager for Keystone Fruit Marketing Inc. in Greencastle, Pa., which is part of Los Angeles-based Progressive Produce.

One is the “the economics of growing onions have not been good in North and South America,” he said.

Good supplies had led to low returns in recent years, which led to fewer plantings, Borer said, noting adverse weather also had contributed.

“The weather plays into it, with hurricanes in Central America and Mexico, so now, this global weather pattern now heads to Europe. Then, you get Europe with tremendous heat and dry and wet spells mixed in, so their crop is short.”

Adverse weather in Mexico exacerbated supply jams, Borer said.

“In the last three months, there’s been kind of a shortage in onions out of Mexico — a combination of economics and weather — and now, demand inside Mexico is so good that there’s just less (Mexican onions) coming to U.S., and Europeans are typically going to Mexico to help feed their demand,” Borer said.

Tonnage from Mexico is down this spring, Borer said.

“The USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) is not even reporting prices, because there are so few now,” he said April 17.

Supplies could remain tight until midsummer, Borer said.

As of April 19, onion supplies nationwide were low due to weather and reduced global supplies, said Rene Hardwick, director of public and industry relations for the Greeley, Colo.-based National Onion Association.

“Only Texas and Georgia are harvesting now, and growers in both regions report good quality, albeit from fewer acres planted,” Hardwick said April 19. 

“Still, other areas are planting as we speak. Some, such as West Coast farmers, are delayed a bit because of rains, but expectations are for great yields into the fall.”

Weather also had complicated planting in the Midwest, she said.

“We’re just getting started on planting today,” said Doug Bulgrin, onion sales manager with Gumz Farms in Endeavor, Wis. 

“It’s hard to have an opinion on this year’s crop; it’s still in the bucket, but I’m very optimistic. It looks as good as it ever could.” 

Chris Pawelski, owner of Goshen, N.Y.-based Pawelski Farms, said all areas east of the Mississippi River had excessive rain — a repeat of a year ago.

“This year, again, it was wet throughout the winter and spring,” he said. 

“Finally, about early April, we got some good, drying weather, and the area has been planting like gangbusters since April 4 or so.” 

Last year’s crop was good, said Greg Bennett, president of Brooks, Ore.-based Northwest Onion Co.

“We had great weather and a great fall, and the quality of the onions that we all harvested in this area last year was better than normal,” Bennett said.

The Vidalia onion season started officially April 22, with a good-quality crop, although volume and sizing might not match other years, said Bob Stafford, executive director of the Vidalia, Ga.-based Vidalia Onion Committee.

“We’ve got good quality, and the later onions, we might not have as many; the size might not be as big as it ordinarily is,” Stafford said.

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