With the vast majority of comments recently submitted to the USDA showing support for the reinstatement of S. Texas Federal Marketing Order 959, the U.S. onion industry awaits a response from the government on how the matter might move forward.
Comments can be read at https://www.regulations.gov/document/AMS-SC-21-0003-0001.
On Oct. 13 Dante Galeazzi, President/CEO of the Texas International Produce Association, told us, “USDA hasn’t shared an exact timeline, but we expect a final decision should be announced before the end of the year. What is more clear are the next steps. Now that comments have been entered into the Federal Register, USDA personnel will assemble those comments into an executive summary. That summary is shared with USTR and Dept of Commerce. Those agencies will add their own comments and summaries to the comments collected from the public. Then, the 3 reports will be assembled into a single dossier and presented to the Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack. Secretary Vilsack will make his determination largely based on that collective report regarding the future of Federal Marketing Order #959.
Marketing Order 959 had been in effect since 1961 and provided the South Texas onion industry with authority for grade, size, quality, pack, and container regulations, research, and promotion programs, as well as authority for inspection requirements. After the USDA moved to terminate the MO, the nation’s onion industry called on the agency to reverse of the order that went into effect earlier this year.
The termination was imposed following failure of the 2020 USDA referendum to continue the marketing order. In its decision to do away with the order and the “the rules and regulations issued thereunder, the USDA stated in its summary information that the action was “based on the results of a continuance referendum in which producers failed to support the continuation of the Order. USDA believes termination of this program would be appropriate as the Order is no longer favored by industry producers.”
A public comment period provided by the USDA on a website page that explained the termination, sentiment expressed by onion industry members not only in S. Texas but across the nation disputes the “no longer favored” claim. Nearly 100 comments were posted on the site and included messages from growers, shippers, associated supply companies, industry boards and committees as well as government officials from multiple states. Nearly all were asking for reinstatement, with some suggesting if reinstatement is not possible, extending dates of other federal marketing orders that are affected by the action against S. Texas.
Opposition to the termination came from across the country, with Texas-centered dissent voiced by several individuals and entities, including
Steve Cargil of Cargil Farms in Uvalde, TX, and sitting chairperson of the South Texas Onion Committee.
Cargil wrote, “I have been a grower and handler of fresh market onions in Texas for 40 years, as did my father for 30 years before me. Our company depends on Texas onions as a primary commodity in our offerings, and it is my opinion that the South Texas Onion Committee and Federal Marketing Order #959 has played a vital role in the keeping Texas onions a key production region of fresh market onions.” Saying the termination of Marketing Order 959 is “unnecessary and comes at a time when the industry can ill afford to lose this important tool in maintaining a higher-than-normal quality standard as well as working collaboratively to market a commodity specific to a region,” Cargil added, “If not for the STOC, grower-shippers such as myself would not have the same input in such marketing programs. STOC is the combined voice of the industry, and if the marketing order goes away so does our voice.”
Cargil, who personally battled COVID and spent six days in intensive care, added, “As a result, I did not cast my vote during the voting period. And I was not alone, as I know some others were facing similar difficulties during this time frame. It is my belief that had the pandemic not curtailed or impacted normal office/STOC activities, then voter response would have been higher. Had that happened, the threshold of growers who wanted to keep the order would have exceeded the number of votes needed and to keep the order in place.”
Cargil further noted, “The collaboration that I have seen in my 40 years of involvement with the STOC and the onion industry is essential to grow the category.” And he concluded, “I would like to request that the USDA cease the termination of Federal Marketing Order #959 and allow the STOC to continue operations and continue giving the Texas onion industry the opportunities we need as a category to stay relevant and front of mind to consumers, to buyers and to our industry.”
Dante Galeazzi wrote on behalf of the Texas International Produce Association, saying, “As the leader of regional association that speaks on behalf of the industry, I can personally attest to the importance, value and impact that tools such as Federal Marketing Order #959 have on the industry. It is similar to the association in that it puts many companies or farmers together to speak and collaborate with one collective, louder voice than 100 or 200 smaller, independent voices.” He said the marketing order “… creates a great B2B (business-to-business) tool for the shippers and handlers with the way in which the South Texas Onion Committee collects and provides crop information. Every participant in the production and sales of onions can make important determinations by understanding the industry’s current plantings, historical yields, and previous average crop pricing. These factors are critical to a solid planning and planting schedule, can be used by marketers when establishing contractors, or by financial partners when considering return potential for farming operations, all for no cost to the Texas onion farmers and handlers.”
Galeazzi referenced the critical labor shortage in S. Texas, noting that the STOC and TIPA had been working together on research of “both mechanical harvesting machines and onion varieties suited to that process to bring that technology to South Texas onions. In fact, it was the marketing order back in the 60s with the advisement of the STOC that Dr. Pike of the Texas A&M system that introduced the Texas 1015 Sweet Onion to the world – now responsible for nearly $32 million in sales alone.”
Looking at the COVID connection to the 2020 referendum’s failure, Galeazzi said, “Many growers reported they did not cast their ballots to vote due to the pandemic. Whether they were sick, not going to the office regularly or could not go into to the office. Considering that the order collected 24 votes from a population of nearly 100 eligible producers, we believe USDA should consider that factor as they decide the future of the marketing order.” He said, “The marketing order is a critical resource for the South Texas onion industry and losing this order and the committee is wrong. Farmers in our region continue to face cost increases for packaging supplies, transportation, labor, taxes, compliance and a host of issues such as supply chain disruptions…. I firmly oppose the termination of the marketing order and believe we should do everything possible to keep the order in place.”
J. Allen Carnes with the Texas Vegetable Association wrote, “The marketing order has also been critical in providing promotion to growers and shippers that otherwise lack the resources to perform promotional activities. Of the 22 registered handlers in the STOC, only a handful have any marketing. This order gives those growers a better opportunity to see higher returns because the STOC is running highly targeted consumer-focused and buyer-focused campaigns to promote all of Texas onions – especially the Texas 1015 Sweet onion. Without the order, these growers would have no marketing and promotion of this commodity would lie solely with their handler, rather than the community of growers.” Carnes also said, “We would be remiss if we did not also point out an issue that was identified by growers in the region during the process of the vote. It is our understanding that many growers did not get to submit their ballots due to COVID. Whether they were sick or were not going to the office as frequently or they had someone else handling the mail, there were farmers who did not get to their ballots in time. We believe far more people would have participated in the vote had COVID not been an issue.”
Texas grower/packer/shipper Mike Davis of Tex-Mex Sales in Weslaco wrote in opposition of the termination, saying, “Without the South Texas Marketing Order this would surely result in a direct impairment to our operation and the rest of the domestic industry within the United States. Most of the foreign suppliers are not subjected to same labor costs and regulations as US producers. As well it would allow international suppliers to overflow our markets and offer a lower priced and lower quality onion. These factors would most certainly put us at a disadvantage with our foreign competitors when they enter the market during our season February to May, causing retail, foodservice and wholesale buyers to put downward pressure on pricing even though the product is not US#1. If the marketing order is in place, the reality is that imported onions would not cross our border if they are out of grade. This would lead to harming US onion growers and driving them out of business.”
Davis added, “If the Texas marketing order were to be terminated, this would most certainly result in direct damage to our operation and the rest of the domestic industry with the United States. Without this marketing order it will allow international suppliers to overflow our markets and offer a lower quality onion and thus lower priced.” And, he said, “I would like to bring up the low representation in the continuance referendum vote on our marketing order. This vote happened in the height of COVID. I have three outside growers that I harvest and pack their product. They didn’t vote, when I asked them why, there response was that they never saw the ballot or forgot. Most farmers are small operations and don’t have full time secretaries. Most ballots were just overlooked or forgotten with pandemic worries or COVID issues in their lives.” He concluded, “I hope you see the extreme situation that this COVID pandemic put on Texas Growers and all US citizens. I believe another vote on this referendum is the correct answer to what transpired. If you terminate this marketing order, I believe that this will be the start of the end of the Texas onion industry as it once was and a huge negative impact on the US onion industry as a whole.”
Steve Bauer wrote, “Marketing order #959 has been a very useful tool to protect the South Texas Onion producers by not allowing junk onions to enter U.S. markets. If the marketing order goes away, it will simply put onion producers in this area out of business. The benefits of Marketing Order #959 far outweigh the assessment fees that come along with administering the program.”
Allen Cohrs wrote, “The Federal Marketing Order for South Texas onions has been in place since the 1960s. It was put in place to protect us from foreign companies flooding the U.S. market with subgrade or even toxic onions. Texas onions, thru this marketing order, are required to adhere to very strict guidelines in order to ship onions. Doing away with marketing order #959 would be devastating to all U.S. onion producers.”
Shane Shelton of San Juan, TX, wrote, “I work in the onion industry, as a foreman for the Krenmueller Farm company. I very much believe we need to keep the marketing order. It is very important that we have the same grades and quality of onions across all the different growers. Plus, the marketing of all Texas onions is very important.”
Carlos Bauer wrote, “I am a second generation farmer in South Texas. My family has grown onions in this region for over 60 years. The thought of sub par onions being dumped into the U.S. from foreign countries is unacceptable. Marketing Order #959 was put in place to protect the consumer from having to deal with low quality and possibly, tainted onions. I support keeping the marketing order in place.”
Troy Bradford wrote, “The current marketing order that is in place is essential to South Texas onion producers. This order assures that only a high quality standard is maintained on onions shipped out. Without the order our markets would be flooded with poor quality onions. This would be detrimental to South Texas onion businesses. Keep the marketing order #959!”
Kyle Kaase wrote, “I want to keep the South Texas Federal Marketing Order #959 in place. I was not aware that a vote was taking place. We need the Marketing Order to help control the quality of the onions because if we were to abolish it, we will be overrun with substandard quality from other countries since they do not have to adhere to our grading standards. If the South Texas Marketing Order #959 is voted out, onions in South Texas will slowly drown out.”
Arthur Beckwith wrote, “The onion business in South Texas greatly depends on the current marketing order which is in place. If this is removed, we will see markets decrease to imports from Mexico along with domestic product which is below average quality. This poor quality dumped on our market will cause a huge negative impact in the South Texas Onion Industry. Please keep the current South Texas Onion Marketing Order in effect.”
Jack Humphreys wrote, “I have been in the Texas Onion deal since 1976. In my humble opinion, the STMO #959 should remain in place. Without the regulation and standards it provides, there will be no order to the Texas Onion deal, with unchecked foreign product flooding the market. I ask that you hold another vote or preserve the marketing order as it is.”
Kim Humphreys wrote, “… I am asking that you keep the South Texas Marketing Order #959 in place. Unfortunately, the vote occurred during an unprecedented pandemic and then a hurricane which resulted in very low awareness of the impending vote and voter turnout. I appreciate the USDA’s willingness to hear comments and consider a new vote, or preservation of Marketing Order #959…If the marketing order is terminated, South Texas growers and their supply chain would suffer due to an influx of imported onions, produced at lower cost, that are not regulated or held to the same growing and grading standards as USA onions. This would cause chaos for all involved and be economically devastating to the Texas & USA onion farmers.”
Kim Humphreys continued, “Allowing Marketing Order #959 to terminate jeopardizes that standard and will create unnecessary & great economic hardship for the hardworking, dedicated farmers, their employees and their communities. I have worked with my father at Zia Onion Sales for 10 years; he has worked in the onion business for 45 years, including with my grandfather who was an early Texas onion grower and shipper. We understand the investment the growers in the onion industry have made over the years to provide and market a high-quality onion. Keeping Marketing Order #959 in place, protects the entire Texas and USA onion business, the community’s they support, and the consumer.”
Mike England wrote, “As a South Texas Onion grower, it is imperative that Federal Marketing Order #959 remains in place. This order was put in place some 50 years ago to insure that consumers know that they are purchasing and consuming quality onions. Without this order in place there will be no standards for which the consumer can depend on to know that the product they are purchasing is of adequate quality for human consumption.”
San Pedro Ranch LLP wrote, “Nothing worthwhile has ever been achieved by lowering the standards. Even less has been achieved through their elimination. San Pedro Ranch has been an active part of the South Texas Agriculture and Farming community since the 1920s.
Over the last century we, as many other farmers and ranchers, have continuously worked to be better: better stewards of our land, achieve better yields, produce a higher quality product and give more to the employees who work alongside our family.”
San Pedro continued, “In the 1960s, the Federal government stood on the side of American growers and shippers by enacting Marketing Order #959 and established much-needed standards for the Texas/domestic onion markets. Those standards have produced better quality products, resulted in safer packing and shipping processes and have sent better onions to the end-user. The removal of Marketing order #959 will do to the domestic onion market what we saw unfold in the 1980s: the flooding of markets with cheap, substandard foreign product and the destruction of family-owned farms and shipping operations.”
And, San Pedro said, “Higher standards protect consumers, produce jobs and drive farming communities. Removing standards will kill an entire industry and with that jobs and long-cherished ways of life. With respect to the voting period, we are struggling to understand how provisions and adaptations were made during the pandemic to ensure the validity of other voting processes, but none were made for this initiative. Farms and packing sheds were and still are affected by the pandemic and had many of the same concerns as other businesses. To add to nation-wide pandemic stressors and supply-chain issues, South Texas navigated its first named storm since Hurricane Harvey in the midst of an area known nation-wide as a COVID ‘hot spot.’ Receiving so few ballots should have been an indicator that the voting processes were flawed. Like many others, our records do not show that San Pedro Ranch received a ballot last year. Please consider this as a vote to keep Marketing Order #959 in place.”
Rico Farms wrote, “The Federal Marketing Order #959 for Texas Onions was put in place to ensure that the quality of onions brought to market met superior standards. The ripple effects of those standards include the improvement of other processes and the raising of expectations for both growers and shippers. The termination of the marketing order will result in an influx of sub-standard product, drive pricing down and the destruction of the Texas market. Our records do not show that Rio Rico Farms received a ballot last year. Consider this a vote to keep the Marketing Order in place.”
Richard Drawe wrote, “The Federal Marketing Order for South Texas Onions has been a great tool to protect the United States from poor quality and possibly tainted onions. The American head of household deserves the right to depend on government regulations to do everything possible to guarantee that the products they are consuming and feeding their families is safe. If this Order is removed, there will be no way of insuring food safety regulations will be adhered to. I am in favor of keeping Marketing Order #959.”
Commenting in opposition to the marketing order and supporting the termination was David DeBerry, President of Southwest Onion
Growers in McAllen. DeBerry wrote, “My family has been a producer and/or exclusive marketing agent for South Texas grown onions since 1955. Four generations including my (currently) 27-year-old son. As a matter of reference, we represent over 500 acres of current annual production.” He said that the “vast majority of USA Onion Production areas do not have restrictive federal marketing orders,” and “the vast majority of any commodity production areas in the USA do not have restrictive FMOS.”
Also, DeBerry said, “Actual Producers in South Texas have already voted twice to discontinue the restrictive FMOs. Its only efforts from the NOA and producers in other areas of the USA that are trying to hurt local Texas producers for the benefit of producers in western USA states.” He concluded, “Consumer prices will rise if the restrictive FMO is forced onto Texas producers for the benefit of western USA producers.”
In addition to the comments from organizations, companies and individuals in S. Texas concerning the marketing order and its continuation or termination, national organizations, elected officials, companies from other regions and ancillary industries also weighed in.
National Onion Association Executive Vice President Greg Yielding commented that 108-year-old NOA’s more than 500 members consist of growers, shippers, brokers and commercial representatives of the onion industry, and the association opposes the termination of Federal Marketing Order 959.
Yielding wrote, “There is no doubt that the fact that there has been a market order in South Texas has resulted in consumers across the country being familiar with the Texas 1015 sweet onion. Through market order assessments funding research on the development of a sweet single centered onion, Dr. Leonard Pike at Texas A&M was able to breed an onion variety that was perfect for making onion rings; The Texas 1015, one of the most popular varieties of onions sold in the United States. The Texas sweet onion was designated the official state vegetable of Texas in 1997. Through continued promotion of Texas onions by the South Texas Market Order Committee (STOC) more than 350 million dollars a year is pumped into the Texas economy as a direct result of having this market order…” and, “The loss of this market order would adversely impact not only Texas growers but onions growers across the entire U.S. by allowing #2 grade (or less) onions to flood the market.
He added, “As the NOA has many members in the market order area, we know firsthand that the COVID pandemic played a very negative factor in the voting process. Several growers were not going into their sheds daily or even weekly during the voting period (3 weeks). Some even had the virus during this time. Only 24 votes from almost 100 producers were cast! This is not representative of what would have happened during a normal time. Since the vote I have not talked to any growers who are not in favor of keeping the market order.”
Yielding continued, “The NOA would like to suggest remedies to correct what happened with this voting process. 1. Keep the market order for the duration of the new term, do not disband it, and keep South Texas Onion growers strong. 2. And/or- hold another vote. This is the least that USDA can do considering the circumstances.” He concluded, “As I have stated, this market order affects more than just the South Texas growers; it affects the whole U.S. onion industry!”
Sam Kieffer, Vice President of Public Affairs for the American Farm Bureau Federation, wrote in opposition of terminating MO 959, saying, “The American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) is the nation’s largest general farm organization. Our members produce agricultural commodities in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. They are engaged in every segment of crop and livestock production and grow a variety of crops, including onions. We write today with concern over USDA’s proposed termination of the federal marketing order regulating the handling of onions grown in South Texas. Although the marketing order names South Texas, the proposed termination would impact onion producers throughout the United States.”
Kieffer continued, “Market Order 959 ensures that imported onions meet the same minimum grade, size, maturity and quality requirements as onions grown in the United States. American farmers strive to produce safe, nutritious, quality crops, often incurring higher expenses than foreign counterparts. This marketing order ensures that imported products are held to the same high standards and do not undermine American onion markets. Considering the importance of ensuring fair competition among those who produce domestically and in other countries, AFBF urges the continuance of Market Order 959.”
Moreover, he said, “AFBF is also concerned with the way USDA determined the marketing order should be terminated. As described in the proposed rule, ‘ballots were mailed to 71 producers in the South Texas production area. For the referendum, 23 ballots were cast. The results show 57 percent of the producers voting, who produced 53 percent of the volume represented in the referendum, favored continuation of the program.’ However, USDA concludes that because the order failed to meet both of the two-thirds criteria for continuance, there is a lack of the producer support needed to continue the marketing order. Considering nearly 60 percent of those who participated voted to continue the marketing order, AFBF disagrees that the lack of participation is reflective of how producers value the marketing order. In fact, there could be other factors contributing to the low participating, including the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and lack of awareness about the implications of the vote.”
In supporting the continuation of the Marketing Order 959, the AFBF said, “American onion producers see value in maintaining Market Order 959. AFBF recognizes the importance of ensuring foreign-produced commodities are held to the same standard as American products. Furthermore, USDA should further explore the reasoning for low participation in the vote on this matter and reconsider the proposal to eliminate Market Order 959.”
The Idaho-Oregon Fruit and Vegetable Association also supports the continuation of Marketing Order 959, saying, “The Idaho-Oregon Fruit and Vegetable Association (IOFVASN) represents the onion shippers in Idaho and Malheur County Oregon. This region is one of the largest onion growing areas in the United States and the shippers in this area ship onions starting in August into June of each year…” under Marketing Order 958. The IOFVASNS continued, “In the proposed rule that is currently in the comment period, ‘Onions Grown in South Texas and Imported Onions; Termination of Marketing Order 959 and Change in Import Requirements,’ it is asking for the removal of the South Texas Marketing Order #959. The members of IOFVASN ask that M.O. 959 be left in place. Because the growers and shippers under M.O. 958 have onions into June, three months without import regulations would put the Idaho and E. Oregon onion growers as well as all US onion growers at a competitive disadvantage.”
It said that while shippers and growers in that area would still fall under the grading and inspections requirements of M.O. 958, “…imported onions for that three-month time frame would have no inspections and grading requirements to follow.”
Alternatively, if the termination of MO 959 stands, the IOFVASN said, “If it is decided that M.O.959 is terminated, then we ask that the import regulations for onions found under 8e Code of Federal Regulations 980.1 17 have the focus that is now tied to M.O. 959 changed to M.O. 958. As outlined in the code, excerpts from the code below, it states that pearl and Cipolline onions during the entire marketing year are required to follow M.O. 958 for the entire year. It is our understanding the reason for that is the Idaho-E. Oregon Onion region is in most direct competition for the pearl and Cipolline onions.”
The Idaho congressional delegation of Sen. Mike Crapo, Sen. Jim Risch, Rep. Mike Simpson and Rep. Russ Fulcher also called on the USDA to continue the marketing order, saying, “The state of Idaho and Malheur County, Oregon, together make up one of the highest onion-producing regions in the United States. Producers from this region ship onions beginning in August into June the following year, following Federal Marketing Order #958. Northwest producers are reliant on Marketing Order #959 during those three months in which Marketing Order #958 does not apply. The removal of Marketing Order #959 will put Northwest producers at an extreme competitive disadvantage to foreign producers when not covered by Marketing Order #958.
“During June, July, and August, domestic shippers and growers would still fall under necessary grading and inspections requirements, while foreign produce is imported without the close monitoring, regulation, and inspection imposed on domestic producers.”
The Idaho contingent continued, “We request that the USDA reinstate Federal Marketing Order #959 in order to ensure fair competition between domestic and foreign produce. If this is not possible, we ask further action be taken in order to increase import standards by extending Marketing Order #958 year-round. These actions are necessary to protect our domestic producers and rural communities.”
Celia Gould, Director of the Idaho Department of Agriculture, commented, “As stated by AMS, the Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act of 1937 provides that when certain domestically produced commodities, including onions, are regulated under a federal marketing order, imports of that commodity must meet the same or comparable grade, size, quality, and maturity requirements. Because this proposed rule would terminate regulations for domestically-produced onions, a corresponding change to the imported regulations would also ensue. This is where our concerns rest.” She said, “Currently, the Idaho-Eastern Oregon and South Texas orders provide standards for onion imports year-round. With the prospect of the South Texas order being discontinued, we urge USDA to provide for import standards that cover the remaining months of the year not covered by order #958. To be clear, we are requesting the maintenance of long- implemented standards. We are not requesting a policy shift or new trade mechanisms.
We strongly urge USDA’s consideration of the tremendous implications this may have for shippers and growers in Idaho and across the U.S. In 2019, USDA ERS estimated that more than 540,000 metric tons of onions were imported into the U.S. Without a system in place for onion import standards, U.S. growers will be at a competitive disadvantage.
After a year that included record drought, severe labor shortages, and significant growing challenges, Idaho’s onion industry needs some certainty about the future of their market opportunities.”
Paul Skeen with Oregon’s Malheur County Onion Growers’ Association wrote that the loss of Marketing Order 959 “would be devastating to our member growers and our impoverished rural community, as well as the national onion industry and the American consumer.” Skeen added, “The Malheur County Onion Growers’ Association represent all onion growers in Malheur County, Oregon, which is the nation’s largest onion producing county. Most of our members are family farmers who grow a diversity of crops, but onions are our single most important crop. Onions are also critically important to the economy of our rural county. The farm gate value of onions in our county is $60–$80 million annually and that amount is multiplied over several times by our local packing and processing businesses.
“The South Texas Onion Marketing Order ensures that onions shipped from March 10 through June 4 meet stringent quality and grade standards. This time frame corresponds with the later part of our shipping season. The rest of our shipping season is governed by the Idaho-Eastern Oregon Onion Marketing Order (#958), which is in effect from June 5 to March 9.”
Skeen said the marketing orders “not only govern domestically produced onions; they also ensure that onions imported into the US meet the same stringent quality and grade standards.” Terminating the MO, he said would eliminate those standards, and Skeen said the Malheur group is asking “for your leadership in keeping the South Texas Onion Marketing Order in place. If it is not possible to retain the South Texas Onion Marketing Order, we request your support in extending the Idaho-Eastern Oregon Onion Marketing Order to cover the March 10–June 4 time frame to ensure a year-round supply of high-quality onions.”
The Washington State Potato and Onion Association also commented, saying, “We are reaching out to you regarding the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service proposed rule Onions Grown in South Texas and Imported Onions; Termination of Marketing Order 959 and Change in Import Requirements (Docket No. AMS-SC-21-0003, SC21-959-2 PR). This proposed rule has and will have tremendous, detrimental effect on onion family farms in our region and across the U.S. if Section 8e protections are removed because of this action.”
It said the WPOA is made up of “onion farm families from Washington state and Umatilla and Morrow counties of Oregon. Our large production area ships open (spot) market onions nearly year-round. We ask that Marketing Order 958 from Idaho and Eastern Oregon take on year-round Section 8e authority in the event that Order 959 from South Texas cannot be reinstated.
“The removal of order 959 even though it is only three months would place independent farm families in our region at a severe competitive disadvantage from imports from foreign producers and SOE’s from onions entering the U.S. without regulation and inspection. Lower quality, un-inspected onions that do not meet U.S. Grade quality standards, could contain diseases and pest that will disrupt our growing capacity and ability to export.”
And the WPOA added, The WPOA strongly encourages USDA to ensure fair practice and competition continue by reinstating the South Texas Onion Marketing Order 959, if no other similar protections can be granted. Farm family’s need surety from USDA that our food safety regulations can and will be upheld, no quarantine pests will be introduced, and the domestic market for U.S. onion producers will not be destabilized because of this action.”
Oregon U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden submitted a comment that said, “Removing Marketing Order 959 opens the door to imported onions being allowed to flood the US market without the protection of the close monitoring, regulation and inspection that will still be required of US onion producers. Onion producers in the United States work tirelessly to ensure their products are safe, healthy, and meet necessary federal requirements. Allowing foreign produce to be sold without the same expectation and expense would be a severe detriment to domestic producers and markets.”
The senators continued in their Oct. 4 comments, “We request that the USDA ensure that fair competition between domestic and foreign produce continues either by reinstating Marketing Order #959 or extending the standards through a different method, such as extending Marketing Order #958 year-round. We further request that the comment period for this proposed rule be extended by an additional 30 days so onion producers have sufficient opportunity to weigh in on the proposed rule change and the industry effects. These actions are necessary to protect our domestic producers and rural communities who have already been gravely affected by market changes related to the COVID19 public health pandemic.”
Greg Bird, Executive Director of the Michigan Onion Committee, wrote that the 41-year-old MOC was formed “to serve the marketing and research needs of the Michigan Onion Industry.” He said, “The onion producers in this state have a great environment and location for growing onions. The end result of a season’s onion production is still determined by profitability.” And, Bird noted, “A market order like the Texas Market Order at least establishes some control over imported onions. Forcing imported onions to maintain a certain grade at least keeps subpar onions from flooding the US market.”
He concluded, “The Michigan Onion Committee is in favor of allowing a Texas Market order for onions to still exist, regardless of the troublesome referendum results of the past year.”
Richard Ball, Commissioner of the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, commented to the USDA, “I urge you to resist terminating this marketing order and to maintain the import requirements that are currently in place.” He said, “New York State is a vital producer of onions in the United States, ranking 6th in the nation. New York also accounts for nearly 97 percent of all onion production in the Northeastern US, resulting in $52 million in annual sales for the hundreds of small-scale farms to dozens of larger-scale producers that contribute greatly to our state’s economy. Without import standards, the Department is concerned an influx of imported onions could drive down domestic onion prices dramatically, impacting our farms and the livelihoods of thousands of employees who depend on fair onion prices to generate a sustainable income.”
Ball said that New York “maintains its own statewide onion marketing order, so the Department understands the important role marketing orders play in maintaining quality onion production and stability in the marketplace.” Emphasizing the importance of import standards, he described a 2020 incident in which “cheaper imports coming from Canada attributed to a severe drop in the onion market price in New York State, resulting in the loss of millions of dollars in sales for our farmers.” That, he said, “compounded by the affects the pandemic has had on our farmers, outlines the importance of stringent import standards, ensuring domestic onions are prioritized and can receive an appropriate market price.”
David Fisher with the New York Farm Bureau (NYFB), “New York State’s largest general farm organization,” also wrote in support of Marketing Order 959. He said, “If marketing order 959 were to be eliminated, it would create a gap where onion imports would not be subject to grade and size inspection. This would result in imported onions, that do not meet standards, flooding the market. Not only would this negatively impact onion farmers across the country, but also those in New York. Based on New York producer feedback, termination of marketing order 959 would be economically devastating. In March 2021, when there was not market order for just one day, the market dropped by $2 per 50-pound bag within hours. Once it was stopped, market prices went back up.” Fisher said, “NYFB asks that the onion import standards not be allowed to expire. As a major specialty crop producing state, New York farmers rely on a fair price and fair market to ensure an income from the sale of their products.”
A New York Congressional delegation consisting of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Representatives Patrick Maloney, Elise Stefanik, John Katko and Chris Jacobs wrote to say, “The removal of Marketing Order #959 will put New York farmers and onion farmers across the country at an extreme competitive disadvantage to foreign producers by leaving three months entirely unprotected. During March, April and May, domestic shippers and growers would still be held to the same grading and inspection requirements, while foreign onions could be imported without the close monitoring, regulation, and inspection imposed on domestic producers.”
The delegates added, “We request that the USDA ensure that fair competition between domestic and foreign produce continues either by reinstating Marketing Order #959 or extending the standards through a different method, such as extending Marketing Order #958 year-round. These actions are necessary to protect our domestic producers and rural communities.”
Dozens of individual growers and shippers from across nation’s onion-growing regions also commented on the negative impact they believe the termination represents. Idaho-E. Oregon, Wisconsin, Michigan, New York, Oregon, Washington
And citing the potential harm to his company, Frank Bushman, President and CEO of Industrial Ventilation Inc. in Nampa, ID, and partner in Teton West of Washington LLC, both of which “turn-key high-end onion storages in the northwestern US,” said, “The impact of the removal of Federal Marketing Order #959 will be devastating to our onion customers and rapidly devalue the huge investments they have made to make high-quality onions available to the fresh market and onion processing industry. Further investments in sophisticated sorting and onion packaging lines would also be devalued with the removal of this Marketing Order. Additional investments have been made by many of our customers to peel and slice onions for restaurants in the US reducing waste and labor at these restaurant sites creating a cleaner environment for many major cities in the US. Again, the removal of FMO #959 would devalue these investments and create an investment climate unfavorable to the US economy.”
Bushman said, “For the sake of our US onion grower customers and to the benefit of onion-associated design/manufacturing companies like mine, I ask that the USDA reinstate Federal Marketing Order #959.”
Written comments supporting the termination were submitted by Fresh Produce Association of the Americas. The FPAA, a non-profit trade association that represents U.S. companies involved in importing and distributing fresh produce grown in Mexico and sold throughout the U.S. and Canada, posted comments signed by its president, Lance Jungmeyer. It said it believes “that regulations impacting imported onions should also be terminated as outlined under Section 8(e) of the Act.” It added, “The FPAA understands this would remove the requirements based on the Order for South Texas onions from March 10 through June 4. Further, the FPAA understands that import requirements for onions based on Marketing Order 958 for Idaho and Oregon would remain in effect from June 5 through March 9, and for the entire year for pearl and cipolline onions.”
FPAA continued, “Termination of the Order for both domestic and imported onions under the South Texas Order is the proper step and is clearly stated within the regulations set forth in Order. The outcome of the mandatory continuance referendum shows a lack of interest in the continuation of the Order by the domestic industry. Contemplation of continuing an order that is unsupported by the domestic industry and that goes against the referendum regulations outlined in the Order would undermine the integrity of the process and industry oversight of self-initiated marketing orders.”
OnionBusiness.com will continue to follow the story and bring updates as we receive them.
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