There are certain signs that summer has arrived: days are longer and warmer, outdoor activities flourish and the New Mexico onion season heats up.

That’s always good news to growers and shippers in New Mexico but, perhaps, never better news than this year, which saw some of the coldest winter temperatures the state has endured in decades.

“On Feb. 1, it dropped down to 10 to 12 degrees below zero; it’s never gotten that cold in 25 years here,” said Chris Cramer, onion researcher with the department of agronomy and horticulture at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.

“It’s been tough this year,” he said.

The cold snap killed off stands, particularly of younger, smaller onion plants.

“The big freeze of Feb. 1 got all the New Mexico onions down below zero for multiple hours,” said James Johnson, vice president of Carzalia Valley Produce in Columbus, N.M. “There wasn’t anybody in New Mexico that was spared from the cold.”

As a result, numerous growers reported that their earliest harvests, in addition to being delayed up to two weeks, would be shorter than usual on volume.

“I think the crop’s probably off 40% in stands,” Johnson said.

Johnson expects the market to be high, at least for awhile, he said.

“I think prices are going to have to be up just because supply is going to be down,” he said. “This June crop was planted in September, and it’s impossible to make it up whenever you lose 40% of the crop in February.”

The company likely will fall short of its usual 800,000-bag volume, Johnson noted.

The state probably won’t start hitting peak volumes until “around June 13,” he said.

Any shortage likely will reverberate through the onion industry at large, since New Mexico plays a key role in the start of the summer onion season, said Wayne Mininger, executive vice president of the Greeley, Colo.-based National Onion Association.

“It’s a major onion state because of its seasonality,” Mininger said. “It’s basically a link from May through the end of August in the prime marketing season. Around Memorial Day, you shift to the summer areas — San Joaquin and New Mexico are the major players that kick off the summer deal as you transition out of the imports from Mexico and the Imperial Valley and South Texas and Vidalia, Ga. It’s a quick transition.”

In 2010, New Mexico produced onions on 5,500 acres, according to the New Mexico Department of Agriculture. That was a 300-acre increase over 2009 and stood in contrast to the 3,400-acre reduction across the U.S., where total acreage was 154,010.

“It will definitely hurt us a little bit,” Dencil Russell, shed manager at Arrey, N.M.-based grower-shipper Desert Spring, said of the fallout from the February chill.

Debbie Porter, co-owner of Hatch Valley Produce, a 300-acre onion operation in Hatch, N.M., estimated her early crop would be 30% to 40% leaner.

“Later will be better,” she said.

She added that it would be a letdown from a year ago.

“Last year we had a great year: no weather problems, prices were fantastic,” she said.

The cold didn’t last, but there were other weather problems, said Marty Franzoy, manager and owner of Hatch-based Skyline Produce.

“The wind is just killing us every day,” he said. “We’re getting winds up to 55 to 65 mph, and it’s hurting some of our spring stands.”

Other than that, the spring crop appeared to be doing OK, he said.

“The spring crop … will be a little late here, but it’s looking pretty good,” Franzoy said.

Larry Barker, owner of Las Cruces, N.M.-based Barker Produce, said he had to replant about 30 to 40 acres of his total of 650.

“We should be OK,” he said.

Jamie Hooper, general manager of Las Cruces-based Charles Johnson Co., said he’s optimistic, weather problems notwithstanding.

“That is a factor, the weather, but we think we’re going to come through it just fine,” Hooper said.