Onion growers and shippers in the Columbia Basin say their sweet onions can keep up with better-known rivals from Walla Walla, Wash., and Vidalia, Ga., and perhaps will pass them in certain aspects in the future.
"Our Washington sweet onion is comparable, as far as pungency and sweetness, to other areas of the country. What we"re known for is consistent quality, good shelf life, basically something the customer can buy and have confidence in and leave in their fridge or on their counter for a few days," said Brenden Kent, vice president of Prosser, Wash.-based grower-shipper Sunset Produce LLC.
The company is working on a few new varieties to join the mix, he said.
"We have some new varieties that are still numbered, but we are focusing on them," Kent said.
Among the newcomers will be a sweet red onion, Kent said, and there"s more in the works.
"We"re also working on a sweet yellow onion that"s as good as a summertime sweet onion that will store for a long period of time," he said.
There should be a lot of activity in terms of new varieties in the next few years, Kent said.
"There"s going to be some really cool new varieties coming out on the sweet side that the customers are going to really like," he said.
There are sweet onions coming out of the field that also can store well, Kent said.
"The ones we have now that we"re selling now are pretty darn sweet," he said.
"Are they as sweet as the Vidalia right out of the field? Probably not, but they"re very close."
Kent said Sunset offers early sweet varieties that "are just as good" as rivals from Vidalia and Walla Walla.
"The storage sweet onions can"t totally duplicate the summertime sweet onions, but I think in the near future there will be one that"s very comparable and very close in flavor," Kent said.
Carly Kwak, sales director for Hermiston, Ore.-based River Point Farms, said her company also compets strongly in the sweet onion market.
"We had very good movement on our Hermiston Sweet program last year, and we are expecting good movement on our sweets this year, as well," she said.
Not having a place in the sweet onion competition is not an option, said Steve Smith, president of Pleasant Grove, Utah-based National Onion Inc., which ships onions out of Washington and Oregon.
"It seems like there"s so many places that have them in the summer, then you come into the fall and winter, you"ve got to have a variety or a program in place for that time frame," he said.
Shawn Hartley, owner of Syracuse, Utah-based Utah Onions Inc., said his company offers a Northwest Sweet.
"It"s doing good," he said. "There are some people that would rather have the Northwest Sweet over others."
It"s storage-worthy, which is a competitive advantage, Hartley said.
"This is a fall-type onion, compared to a Walla Walla, which is a summer onion, and it probably has a little longer shelf life than the Walla Walla, but it doesn"t have the name that the Walla Walla does," Hartley said.
The ideal scenario is to have a dependable sweet onion available year-round out of the region, said Bryon Magnaghi, produce trader with Seattle-based wholesale distributor FC Bloxom.
"There"s varieties that are being developed at this point, and the ultimate goal is to have that sweet onion available out of the Northwest through March and get into the Vidalia season," he said.
The ultimate goal has yet to be attained, but work continues in variety development, Magnaghi said.
"I think we"re getting close on some varieties, but once you put an onion into storage longer-term, it"s a little more difficult process," he said.
"But there some varieties that the seed companies continue to work on."