Export sales of onions tend to vary according to conditions in individual global markets, but sources say profit possibilities exist overseas.

“It just depends on the year and the shortages overseas,” said Scott Adams, owner of Hatch, N.M.-based Adams Produce Inc.

Some years are better than others, but shipments go out each year, he said.

Onions are grown worldwide, with 170 countries producing crops, according to the National Onion Association, which estimated over 9.2 million acres of onions are harvested annually around the world.

Overseas production exceeds of 3.2 billion 50-pound units, the association said, citing sources at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome.

About 8% of global onion production is traded internationally, according to the NOA. Leading onion production countries are China, India, the U.S., Turkey, and Pakistan.

U.S. onion exports amount to 11 million to 14 million 50-pound bags per year, according to the Greeley, Colo.-based association. The U.S.’s top export markets are Canada, Mexico, Japan and Taiwan.

The U.S also imports onions, averaging about 12 million to 17 million bags per year, primarily from Mexico, Canada, Peru and Chile. That represents up to 14% of U.S. onion consumption, said Wayne Mininger, the association’s executive vice president.

“People have built some very strong (export) relationships and, year after year, they’re expecting product from U.S. shippers and suppliers, and they depend on it and it works well,” Mininger said.

Supply shortfalls often dictate the direction of the export market, he said.

“There’s a shortage in the winter in Mexico, and we may see the 1.5 million bags turn into a 2.5 million bags because of that opportunity there, so that’s kind of icing on the cake,” he said.

Exporters are quick to respond when opportunities arise, Mininger said.

“Where a shortage occurs on the spot market, and they sense there’s an opportunity to move an extra 1,000 containers, they jump on that,” he said.

U.S. shippers have plenty of product and resources to devote to the export market, wherever the product is needed, Mininger said.

“We have the product and price and value and certainly the infrastructure and can service those needs, so it’s working well,” he said.

Shippers say they have to be ready to react quickly.

“You just have to wait and see if there’s a shortage somewhere, said Steve Smith, owner of National Onion Inc., Las Cruces, N.M.

Mexico has been a relatively lean export market over the last couple of years, and Asia has shrunk as a destination, Smith said. He cited Mexico as an example as having taken only about 30 loads of onions in 2011, compared to 150-200 in the past.

“We’re looking to ramp up our promotion efforts in Asia because we anticipate growing interest in that market for our onions,” said Sherise Jones, marketing director for the Idaho-Eastern Oregon Onion Committee, Parma, Idaho.

Some say exporters try to ensure they have product to cover all needs, not just volume.

“We occasionally go to Japan, Taiwan and Australia, but only if their crop is short and they want sizing, because we offer jumbos they don’t have,” said Chris Woo, sales manager in the Ontario, Ore., office of Idaho Falls, Idaho-based Potandon Produce LLC.