Featured image: Cuyama, CA onion harvest, courtesy of Robert Bell with Western Onion Sales, LLC
To all of our contributors across the country, we send a heartfelt thanks for your reports. Some of you should be collecting hazard pay, dealing not only with the restrictions and rigors of COVID-19 but also with the heat and smoke of the hundreds of fires burning across the nation. Satellite photos show the immense swath blanketing the Pacific Northwest and areas east. It’s gut-wrenching. Stay safe, everyone. God bless you all!
John Harris with Paradigm Fresh in Fort Morgan provided a good overview of early September this week. He said, “The market is in a very strong place. The USDA box program looks like it is definitely having a positive impact on our market. Yellow pricing is strong with solid demand during a time which usually a little sluggish. Reds and whites are steady, and general quality is improving by the week.” And, John said, “We should be into long day varieties with lots of skin and long shelf life starting any time from many of the shippers in the PNW.” Looking at transportation, John noted, “The closure of UP Cold Connect, formally Railex, is showing us how important it was to the supply chain. On a typical week they hauled between 600-800 loads of product out of Washington, and now that burden is being put on trucks to carry the load. What we are left with is a severe truck shortage and freight rates, particularly on refrigerated loads, like we have never seen before.” He continued, “At this point, I’d venture to say that standard rates are up 30 percent or more over the same lanes a year ago. As weather gets colder and reefers become our only options, we will travel down uncharted territory this winter with unprecedented freight rates.” John added, “In years past, sometimes it was a matter of rate. This year, even with an open mind and open wallet, there are just not going to be enough trucks. Planning ahead has never been more important than it will be going into the upcoming winter months.”
Colorado Western Slope:
David DeBerry with Southwest Onion Growers in McAllen, TX, told us on Sept. 9 the recent cold and snow that hit parts of Colorado didn’t adversely affect his growers’ Western Slope crop. “We’re rockin’ and rollin’,” David said. “My guys got just a very light shower,” he said, adding, “Basically the front part of the crop was in burlap and already cured. We don’t anticipate missing any packing or shipping time.” The operation is shipping all three colors, and David said demand has been “very strong in part because of the significant demand from the government’s Food Box program.” Additionally, demand has been strong out of Mexico, and David said that could last another month to six weeks. “So those Chicken Little types who were so worried a month ago are now grateful to be wrong,” he said. David did note that transportation has been “a little tough,” commenting, “Labor Day is the last holiday until Thanksgiving for a lot of drivers, and they always take it off.”
Rick Greener with Greener Produce in Ketchum started his report out this week with, “Trucks suck!” He elaborated, “Everything is going pretty smoothly except for freight. I wish there were more trucks and at better rates. Last week the hammer was down, and this week buyers are looking to refill, so demand is decent. We are moving onions out of Colorado, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Utah and Michigan.” And, he said, “Quality is great, and the market is stable. Whites are particularly strong right now. Panama is still pulling onions, so that’s good news.” Rick concluded by saying, “Overall, we really don’t have much to complain about this week – if we didn’t have these freight problems.”
Chris Woo with Owyhee Produce in Parma, ID, and Nyssa, OR, told us on Sept. 9, “Growers are very busy the next two to three weeks harvesting their fine crop with ideal weather conditions forecasted.” He added that he “can’t go up and talk to them or they will put me to work driving truck since they’re short-handed due to the labor shortage.” At the shed, Chris said, the operation is “busy supplying for the Food Box Program and retail. Demand for foodservice is slowly picking up. Some days we’re busy and some days we’re not.” Owyhee Produce has a “good mix with wonderful quality of all sizes with the three colors to offer to meet all the needs of our reputable clientele,” Chris said. And, he added, “Summer fairs and victory gardens are done with. Kids are slowly going back to school. The onion deal looks very promising – better than expected.”
Herb Haun with Haun Packing in Weiser, ID, said on Sept. 9 that this year’s season has had a positive start. “Demand has been very good,” he said, noting that the Treasure Valley to date was 500 loads ahead of the same time last year. “Sizing is very good,” he said, adding that demand, especially at foodservice, for jumbos and larger has been unexpectedly good as well. “It’s kind of surprising the amount of foodservice business we’re getting,” he said. “Transportation is tight, and the loss of Cold Connect is going to keep it that way.”
Steve Baker with Baker & Murakami Produce in Ontario, OR, weighed in this week and said, “Demand has been fair this week. We are coming off a busy week before the holiday, and it remains to be seen how the rest of this short week will play out.” Steve said the onion market has been steady so far this week, and he noted that Baker & Murakami is shipping all three colors now, with good availability on each. “The quality has been excellent,” he said. On transportation, Steve said, “It’s been a challenge since we have started this season. For the most part, we are able to get our loads covered in a timely manner.” And he said that at this point, he’s not seeing the fires causing any more transportation problems than before.
Dwayne Fisher with Champion Produce Sales in Parma, ID, told us on Sept. 9, “The only thing making us cry right now is freight, not onions! We could lower the unemployment rate another three or four points pretty easy if we could get people back to work, and here is an example of an industry desperate to hire – I guess a few when you consider our labor situation as well! Rates are high, and that doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon.” He continued, “What we have to make clear is that is the cost of getting the product, and there is no room (ZERO) to take from the fob of the onion to help compensate those rates. Our farms and growers are already barely squeaking by with all our other inflated expenses, we can’t subsidize the freight as well.” Dwayne said, “That being said, business is good. We can get orders – just finding wheels is the stressful part. We have decent demand for this time of year with very steady pricing.” In terms of the crop, Dwayne said, “We are now lifting all of our onions to finalize the curing process, and within 10-14 days the onions should be going into long-term storage.” He added, “When that time comes, we will really feel the pinch of a tight labor market trying to continue to pack and be in full-steam-ahead storage. Never a boring day in the onion business!”
Idaho-E. Oregon and Washington:
We checked in with Wada Farms’ John Vlahandreas in Salem, OR, this week to make sure he and his family were safe amidst the fires that surround the Salem area. “We are all good here,” John said. “I will say that the city and county are doing a stellar job helping those affected by the fires. We are seeing a large influx of people coming into town from the fire regions, and the fairgrounds have been set up to help out with animals that are displaced. Hotels are filling up, and everyone is pulling together in a variety of ways to help out.” He continued, “My family is doing well, but you can’t step outside without getting ash build-up, and my deck has ash completely covering it.” After providing us with that good safety report, John weighed in on onion demand and the market. “Demand is definitely there, but production is a little slower this week,” he said, “There were some big windstorms around the Tri-Cities and even in the Idaho-E. Oregon region, and some folks were affected by power outages. Sheds are running, but it doesn’t seem to be quite the level of production this week.” John added, “I will say that the market is very stable. No one is trying to tear down the market, and everyone is playing nice – pretty cool when you consider all that’s going on in the world.” He concluded, “One thing I think we are going to find this season is that overall yields might be down. There were ideal growing conditions and there is great quality out there, but we might see a dip in availability due to lower yields. Time will tell.”
Kerrick Bauman with L&L Ag Production in Connell also provided photos and said on Sept. 9 the Pacific Northwest fires had brought smoke to his area as well. “We had a really windy dirty day here on Monday,” Kerrick said. “The weather has cooled off, so we are lifting onions and going to storage with early maturing storage onions. The crop looks average, with some seeders in the early planted fields.” Kerrick shared a photo with us, and we’re sharing here as well.
Image: Loading onions late on September 8, 2020 in the smoke from the fires in the north cascades, Courtesy of Kerrick Bauman
California Central Valley:
Robert Bell with Camarillo, CA-based Western Onion reported in from harvest in Cuyama in the Central Valley on Sept. 7, saying that area was getting smoke from fires burning northwest of them. Temp that day was 105F, which Robert said “could’ve been much hotter but for the shade.” Two days earlier he’d seen 117F. Robert provided photos of the area, which we’re sharing below.