Wayne Mininger has been president of the Greeley, Colo.-based National Onion Association for more than 20 years.
He says strategies in marketing onions have evolved, thanks to the emergence of new varieties and as consumers have been educated about new uses for the product.
“Marketers have done a nice job of placing product into customers’ hands,” he said. “It’s something that didn’t exist 20 years ago.”
New varieties have helped, Mininger said.
“The sweet and mild offerings product have been marketed very well and they are a part of kind of dual category offerings in the onion business that didn’t exist many years ago,” he said.
“Now it’s a way of life. Standard onions are very popular and consumption has been consistent. Over the years, there’s been additional penetration in the consumer buying habit by the sweet-mild offerings.”
Consumers now consider more opportunities and creative ways to use an onion than perhaps 20-30 years ago, Mininger said.
“We’ve seen that trend develop and mature in such a fashion that not only the trained chefs but the consumers alike have learned to use their onions in more and different ways and use all colors and use mild offerings,” he said.
“All of that, in my opinion, has matured in the last 20 years, where that part of the onion-marketing picture is different than it was 20 years ago.”
Kevin Stanger, vice president of Idaho Falls, Idaho-based Wada Farms Marketing Group, said marketing onions and potatoes requires similar strategies.
“Foremost, you have to have consistent quality and service, whether potatoes or onions, by offering some flexibility in what you can provide in the sense of the aspect of offering different packs, assortments,” he said.
“We offer a national label with the Dole program. All those things are paramount. By offering a year-round supply, the HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points) deal, food safety, those are all paramount in potatoes and onions. You need to offer a full, rounded program more now than ever.”
A year-round onion deal is also crucial, said Don Ed Holmes, owner of The Onion House LLC, Weslaco, Texas.
“You have customers you take care of on a regular basis,” Holmes said. “Some guys get in for one or two months and have to buy their way in and, just as quickly as they came in, they disappear, and so they don’t have a chance to build relationships.”
Down in the Vidalia, Ga., sweet onion district, supplies were down a bit this year, said Richard Pazderski, sales director for Glennville, Ga.-based Bland Farms LLC.
“For Vidalia, the season was plagued with a lot of disease and weather issues, so the crop was off by 1.2 million bags,” Pazderski said.
“But it went well. We had a good season. Prices were good all the way through. There was a low point of $14-16. Right around that time we got a large rainstorm that caused a lot of people to abandon their fields. It moved up steadily to about $22. We finished up around early August.”
Pazderski echoed Holmes in stressing the importance of offering year-round supplies.
“Our strategy is to be that year-round supplier, to accommodate any situation, to have a good range of product, so we could go out to all customers,” he said. “Be in front of that buyer year round. Something they could work with at retail level.”
In Walla Walla, Wash., sweet onion supplies lasted through the end of September, said Kathy Fry, marketing director for the Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Committee.
“We just finished our harvest,” she said in early October. “We usually start around June 1, and we’ve had onions in the ground through August and may have a few shipments to out at the end of September.”
Walla Walla shippers often take a more regional marketing approach with their product, Fry said.
“It depends a lot on where we are,” she said. “On the East Coast, most people are involved in Vidalia.”
Canada is a good market for Walla Walla shippers, Fry said.
“Aside from that, we try to kind of hold our own,” she said.