Things worked out pretty well last year for onion growers throughout the Mid-Columbia.
Nature cooperated with warm summer weather, which Pasco grower Kerrick Bauman said helps the quality of his yellow onion crop.
And demand was steady for Walla Walla Sweet onions, which grower Mike Locati said he has come to expect during the past 10 years.
There were challenges, though, such as the storms that swept through the area during the summer and some fields going to seed too early and some onions maturing too early.
But growers say their biggest looming issue is if they will be able to find workers to care and harvest onion crops in the future.
“What gets me is we’re in one of the biggest unemployment cycles in our history and we can’t get enough people to harvest our crops,” Locati said in September after he finished harvesting his 42 acres of Walla Walla Sweets.
Washington is the second-largest producer of onions in the nation behind California, with thousands of acres dedicated to their production in the Mid-Columbia region.
About 80 percent are yellow onions, with the rest being red and white onions to stock grocery stores and many restaurants.
“When you go to Subway, those are the onions you see already chopped up,” Bauman said.
Some Mid-Columbia onions are processed for use in other food products. For example, a Tri-City processor uses onions when making its hash browns. Other onions are exported overseas.
Walla Walla Sweets are grown on a smaller scale and only can be marketed as such if grown in the Walla Walla Valley of Southeast Washington and Northeast Oregon.
Locati said he had a good crew in 2012 to help with harvest but is unsure if it’ll be the same this year and beyond. “I’m just hoping it will stabilize,” he said, adding that the crackdown on immigration is affecting the pool of laborers available.
Bauman harvests 1,400 acres of onions mechanically, but he needs workers to help keep his fields clear of weeds that can severely limit onion growth. That work must be done by hand to protect the developing crop.
Even though he’s had enough workers, he knows other farmers have faced labor shortages. “If we weren’t mechanically harvested, labor would be a major issue,” he said.
Tim Waters, a regional vegetable specialist with Washington State University Extension, said it also can be difficult to lure workers to pull weeds when it’s more lucrative to pick cherries or peaches.
“Who wants to pull weeds? No one wants to pull weeds even in their own yard,” he said.
Labor is one reason onions are one of the more challenging crops to grow. Expenses are high because of seed, fertilizer, chemicals and storage for onions, and prices tend to be volatile, Waters said.
During a week in September 2012, summer onions for storage were selling for about $8.70 per 100 pounds in Washington, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
As for Bauman, he’s just hoping for some dry weather for the next six weeks as he gets his crop out of the fields.
“It’s just starting to get into full swing,” he said.