Results from the recent OnionBusiness survey show a strong agreement as to the most critical issues the onion industry is facing now, with labor and transportation jockeying for the top position. The survey was open for a ten-day period and was open to onion growers, shippers, and other onion professionals.
Those results were shown during the Zoom conference hosted by OnionBusiness during the NOA convention in Puerto Rico. For a copy of the graph PDF, contact OB Publisher Sherise Jones at email@example.com.
The survey consisted of three questions: 1.) What do you consider to be the most important issue facing the industry today, with 10 issues listed (labor, transportation, supply chain, marketing orders/effects, trade agreements, recent salmonella outbreak, food safety equity with trading nations, FSMA, and water regs, production costs/inflation v. market, crop reports); 2.) How are these issues being addressed by industry advocacy and by regulatory agencies; and 3.) In 2022, how can the onion industry come together to make it a better year?
Fifty-eight respondents, who remained anonymous, provided their industry segment, i.e., grower, shipper, non-profit/support/university, broker, transportation, etc., with some also giving their geographical region for a better idea of where the effects of the separate issues are being most strongly felt. Most of the respondents were growers.
Here are some of the responses, which show labor and transportation are affecting some of the worst issues.
A multi-state grower remarked on labor, “Biggest issue. We need federal funds to automate.” The same respondent said the U.S. is “weak on trade” and asked about the salmonella outbreak, “Who is representing onions on this issue? I didn’t see anything.” Re: FSMA and water regs, the grower again asked who is representing onions. On crop reports, the grower asked who is providing the regional reports and also asked who is representing onions among advocacy and regulatory industries. The final comment was that “someone needs to represent onions.”
Another grower called the labor situation “the worst I’ve ever seen” and used the same terminology for the transportation issue – “The worst I’ve ever seen.” Another grower said simply, “There is none,” in response to the labor question, adding about transportation, “Trucks and rail are bad.”
A grower/packer/shipper said the operation “cannot get labor,” and transportation is “The worst I’ve ever seen.”
A marketing group said its “growers can’t get labor” and also noted it “can’t get trucks – too expensive.” About the supply chain, the group said, “It’s bad and hard to understand the exact problem.”
Another multi-state grower said labor is “the biggest issue… we need federal funds to automate.” Another grower said, “Everyone knows it’s bad, but nothing can be done.” That grower also said that “nothing can be done” about transportation, and about the supply chain, the grower said, “The current administration can’t fix it.”
A sales group said about how the issues are being addressed, “Transportation needs to be dealt with and NOW! LOWER THE PRICE OF FUEL!”
One grower said it “would like information on everybody that’s coming in from South of the Border where they are all going.” That grower also said about transportation, “We’re going to be priced right out of the market.” A grower/packer/shipper added, “The increased costs associated with labor have made hand-clipping very difficult. This will only increase our need to move toward more robotics and mechanization.” On transportation, the grower said its “costs and availability have tightened to the point where we will need to explore the feasibility of purchasing our own trucks.”
A produce and transportation operation professional said, “Labor is critical with the onion industry… however, the shifting demographics illustrate losses in interest on family farms. This will impact the labor aspect.” Another grower/packer/shipper said the labor issues “is only going to get worse,” and one grower/packer/shipper said the issue is compounded by the “age of employees, lack of employees, and cost of labor.”
“Because we can’t find it!” was the reason labor was ranked at the top by another, grower/packer/shipper, who added about transportation, “It is really hard to sell product when you can’t move it.” Another grower/shipper said, “We will figure out a way to make it work, even if we automate more.” And the grower/shipper added, “Let’s elect a new president who wants to help our country.”
Looking at the supply chain, a produce transportation operator said, “Without this connection to market, the pricing will be challenging to manage. What are the critical components of the producers’ supply chain? Are they focusing on those elements which rely heaviest on third parties?” That same operator said, “Transportation is suffering from ‘deferred maintenance. As a fourth-generation operator, we have witnessed a massive shift away from quality to now a lack of quantity. Together, we are able to realize the reasons for failures in the transportation systems today, and why AI is being considered. Deferred maintenance. America has lost something in the way of independence. No longer do we encourage it, this is recognizable in how we train, treat and encourage people today.”
One grower/packer/shipper said, “Supply chain is a mess now, but long-term outlook I can’t imagine it not getting better.” And another grower said there is “plenty of supply in the United States we need to take care of American growers.”
Other questions elicited equally pointed answers, with one grower/packer/shipper saying about marketing orders, “Like we’ve seen with the Texas one, we need them to uphold our quality standards or we will get flooded with garbage and kill our markets.” Another grower/packer/shipper said about marketing orders, “Most are outdated, and the only value is keeping foreign onions to a standard, but I have to wonder if that is really helping.” A grower/shipper said on the issue, “Show me how it helps. The inspections do not hold up when there is a problem. The inspections on the other end must be bought off.”
A plurality of respondents agreed S. Texas Marketing Order 959 should remain in effect.
Pertaining to governmental oversight on other issues, there was agreement on the handling of the recent salmonella outbreak. One grower/packer/shipper said, “The salmonella outbreaks are the primary concern for me. I would like to see research focus on what is causing this and what we can do about it. Growers are left with so many questions and no direction going forward. I think there needs to be a coordinated effort to fight against this and demand some answers from the FDA and CDC.”
A grower added, “We take all kinds of precautions that people should pay attention to buy U.S. product.” Another grower questioned if “it was really the onions,” and a Washington grower said, “I think it was mishandled by USDA and FDA, and no one stepped up to help!” A marketing group said simply that it doesn’t “trust the FDA and USDA,” and another grower from the said, “I question the fact whether it was even onions that were the cause, and it is a bad reflection on the industry.”
And one grower said, “Recalls should specify country or area of origin as soon as it is known to maintain transparency with the consumer.” Another grower/packer/shipper agreed, saying it is “very important to get to the bottom of what is the root cause or where is this happening – foreign onions again should have to pass our same standards.” And another grower/shipper said, “The feds need to thoroughly investigate the outbreak before pointing a finger at onions.”
Federal regulations overall were addressed, with one respondent saying, “I am worried about the new admin in D.C.” And one grower said, “the current admin will pile on more,” and another grower said, “There is a concern the new administration will create new and unneeded regulations.”
Production costs/inflation v. the market brought strong opinions, with a sales group said, “We need federal funds to help cover costs.” A grower said, “It’s out of hand,” and a shipper said, “What we are getting doesn’t match up with our rising costs.” A grower/packer/shipper added, “It’s very difficult to pass those increases onto customer when you are dealing with a product that has only so many days until it is no longer any good.” Another handler said, “Production costs are record high, and what is perceived as a ‘good market’ has to change!”
A grower/shipper/packer said, “Farms are going to go out of business! We can’t keep up with rising costs,” and another grower/shipper/packer said, “I think that the inflation pressure will particularly affect the production of onions. Many chemical and fertilizer costs have nearly doubled, while the market likely cannot sustain that high cost.” One more grower/shipper/packer added, “We are up over 40 percent in almost every category.”
We asked about crop reports, there was a multitude of comments and for a complete list of those comments industry professionals can obtain those by requesting the PDF of the survey.
As for how issues are being addressed by advocacy and regulatory groups, a grower/shipper said, “New USDA administration is the only thing that would help. We need a lobbyist.”
Several respondents said they don’t believe there is adequate representation for onions, and a grower said, “USDA does a horrible job. There’s no traction in D.C.”
Many other comments were provided and those too can be accessed by requesting a copy of the complete survey.
The final question in our survey asked how the onion industry might come together to make it a better year, and the responses were varied.
Suggestions included having regional groups working on regional issues, working the H-2A program, passing on higher costs for transportation, cutting acreage plated, leveling the playing field on foreign onions, more involvement with USDA, stopping imports, making adjustments to marketing practices, better representation in DC, even a change in the administration.
Again, the full details with graphs and all the comments may be requested by emailing Sherise Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org.
OnionBusiness thanks all our respondents – virtually every growing area including the following: California, Colorado, “Eastern Oregon” Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, “Midwest”, Michigan, “Multi-State”, “Northwest”, Oregon, Texas, “Treasure Valley”
OnionBusiness also extends a special thanks to our sponsors of the survey and the Zoom presentation, Volm Companies, and Rietveld Equipment.