(Sept. 16, 9:47 a.m.) Volume of sweet onions from Peru this season will be less than last year, but quality should be outstanding, grower-shippers said.

Michael Hively, general manager for Bland Farms LLC, Glennville, Ga., returned from a recent trip to Peru and described the onions as “the prettiest crop I’ve ever seen.”

“The quality should be excellent this year,” he added.

Industrywide, volume is estimated at 3,000 containers compared to 4,200 in 2007, he said. Each container holds about 52,000 pounds of onions.

Growers in Peru give priority to exports, so U.S. importers usually get the best quality, said John Vlahandreas, national onion sales director for Wada Farms Marketing Group LLC, Idaho Falls, Idaho.

On Sept. 25, 2007, 40-pound cartons of jumbo yellow granex onions from Peru were selling for $16-18, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This year, Vlahandreas said he expects to see prices in the $14-16 range. As of Sept. 8, 2008, prices were $22-24.

Volume is down because growers overproduced last season, so they cut back this year’s crop, said Kevin Hendrix, vice president of Hendrix Produce Inc., Metter, Ga.

The company started shipping Peruvian onions the first week of September, right on schedule, he said, adding that quality looked good.

Some shipments arrived a bit later than usual because growers were reluctant to get back into the deal too soon, recalling the “disastrous” pricing they saw last year, said Bob DeBruyn, president of DeBruyn Produce Co., Zeeland, Mich.

Somewhat cool, cloudy weather also led to a late start.

“It’s taking at least a week more to cure (the onions) than we’re used to,” he said in mid-August.

The upside of the delay is that it allows the onions more time to grow.

With the deal lasting several months and with reduced volume this year, the delay may not have a significant effect on the overall crop, DeBruyn said.

“Things normally tend to catch up during the season,” he said.

“At this point, I have no reason to believe that the quality won’t be good,” he said, but he added that growers would have to exercise restraint and not rush the curing process as they try to get back on schedule.

This year’s reduced volume and good mix of sizes should result in a more productive season for Peruvian growers and U.S. shippers, Hively said.

The market was so bad last year that some Peruvian onions were sold at less than break-even prices, he said. And there was an overabundance of large sizes.

“Last year, 90% of the onions that came out of Peru were colossal,” he said. “The sizing was (disproportionate) to what the retailers and wholesalers expected from the Peru onion program.”

This year, Bland Farms should have “a good mixture” of up to 30% medium sizes, up to 45% jumbos and the balance colossals.

“There’s a lot of things on the agronomy side that you can do to control sizing,” Hively said, like adjusting the spacing in the beds and tweaking fertilizer applications.

No matter what the commodity, “Farmers inherently want to grow the biggest, prettiest, best piece of fruit,” he said. “Last year, it just got out of hand.”

Bland Farms handles about one-third of the total Peruvian sweet onion deal and will have Peruvian product until mid-January, Hively said.

Sweet Onion Trading Co., Palm Bay, Fla., will cut its Peruvian onion program by half this year and increase its supply of medium sizes, said president Barry Rogers.

“We ended up losing money last year,” he said. “The packouts were terrible.”

Early quality looked good this year, he said.

The annual game plan for Gerrald’s Vidalia Sweet Onions Inc., Statesboro, Ga., is to switch to Peruvian onions when the Vidalia onion storage crop is exhausted in order to provide an uninterrupted supply of sweet onions, said Jamie Brannen, vice president.

The company will source from Chile starting in late January.

The sweet onion category has gotten so popular that it’s imperative for major players to offer them year-round, he said.

Last August, the Peruvian onion-growing region around Ica was reeling from a magnitude 8 earthquake, but DeBruyn said the infrastructure seems to have recovered, though the lives of residents who lost their homes still are in disarray.

Irrigation wells were not damaged, the ports are working, and trucks can get in and out, he said, “but people still are living in rugged conditions.”

Peruvian onion volumes down, but quality excellent
In Peru, workers harvest sweet onions and place them in mesh bags for curing. Somewhat cool, cloudy weather led to a late start this season, says Bob DeBruyn, president of DeBruyn Produce Co., Zeeland, Mich. In addition, DeBruyn says some Peruvian sweet onion shipments arrived a bit later than usual because growers were reluctant to get back into the deal too soon, recalling the “disastrous” pricing they saw last year.

Courtesy DeBruyn Produce Co.