As February gave way to March, Texas onion growers were still thinking about January.
The spring crop of onions was lagging far behind, thanks to a long stretch of cold, then cooler-than-normal weather.
Growers had reached a not-too-pleasant consensus about the potential volume of this year’s crop, said David DeBerry, president of David K DeBerry Inc., Edinburg.
“It can be said easiest this way: We don’t know for sure what the impact of the colder weather in December and January and below-average highs and lows of the past 40 days will be,” DeBerry said Feb. 22. “The only thing I know for sure is the onions aren’t as big or mature as they should be.”
Combined with the cool temperatures was a dearth of sunshine, he said.
“I don’t think we’ve had 15 days of sunshine since the first of the year,” he said.
DeBerry said the crop was at least two or three weeks behind where it had been at the same point a year earlier.
“There are a lot of people who just don’t know how it’s going to react,” he said. “We don’t see a lot of disease, but there is some. They don’t have great color. Probably without question, we will have below-average yields — we just don’t know whether it’s 5%, 10% or 30%.”
He described the onion plants as stressed due to the lack of heat and sunshine.
“We’ve got 610 acres and expect by now that 300 would be bulbing,” DeBerry said. “You’d expect 50-60% of onions to be doing that now, and it’s less than 10%.”
The crop normally starts in volume around April 1-5, with some product coming out in the March 10-16 range, DeBerry said.
“Certainly, we’ll be a little later getting started and volume at the front will be lower,” he said. “We’ll probably see that skewed a little into April, with total production down some percentage because we’ve had less than ideal conditions.”
Weather has been a problem since the first of the year, growers noted. Just after New Year’s Day, a cold wave descended on the Rio Grande Valley, with predictions of sustained hard freezes.
Temperatures, as it turned out, dipped only briefly into the 20s, and most of the citrus crop — the focus of much of the concern — was spared.
But, even by the last week of February, growers still weren’t able to determine what kind of damage the cold snap left, DeBerry said.
“The biggest concern of that freeze is the bolting, where the plant will make a seed stem and make it unusable for a No. 1 product,” he said.
However, growers can’t see any evidence of bolting without a sustained period of warm, sunny weather.
“You’d need seven, eight, nine days in row of normal temperatures,” he said.
As for acreage, the South Texas Onion Committee in Mission reported 10,754 acres had been planted, compared to 10,304 in 2008-09.
John McClung, the committee’s manager, said growers and shippers were hoping the markets would improve over last year.
“The guys will tell you prices were lousy for most of last year,” he said. “In terms of production, we had about a normal season. We had some guys very early on were late getting the crop in, but nothing that became a difficulty.”
Yellow is, by far, the dominant variety in both the lower Rio Grande Valley and the Laredo-Winter Garden region, at around 60% of production, which also includes reds, whites and sweet varieties.
As of Feb. 22, 50-pound sacks of super-colossal yellow Spanish onions from the Oregon-Idaho district were mostly $19-20 according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Forty-pound cartons of sweet onions from Peru were $22. Fifty-pound sacks of jumbo whites from the Mexico were $42-45.
Mike Martin, president of Rio Queen Citrus Inc., based in Mission, agreed last year presented challenges.
“Last year was a tough deal from Mexico and Texas,” Martin said. “The weather was almost ideal for growing onions in South Texas, so yields were excellent. Add that on top of a long storage crop in the Northwest and the country had too much supply until about mid-May.”
Martin hesitated to make any forecasts for the upcoming deal.
“It is almost impossible to predict what to expect for the coming season, but things are shaping up much differently,” he said. “The storage crop is less than it was at this time last year, and we are hearing that some of the storage crop is not holding up well. There is good export movement currently.
“The market in Mexico is very strong, with a shortage of onions driving prices up. Who knows how long that will last, and, who knows how long Washington, Oregon and Idaho will continue to ship quality to the domestic market? These factors, among other smaller factors, are going to determine the spring market.”
Raleigh, N.C.-based L&M Cos. Inc., which is entering the third year of its partnership with Weslaco-base A-W Produce Co., reported a slight cutback in acreage this year, said Tracy Fowler, L&M’s general manager of potato and onion operations.
“We cut back just slightly 450 acres (from 520),” he said. “We’re projecting about a March 10. Probably the 20th before it starts.”
Last year’s onion deal worked out well, Fowler noted.
“We had an excellent year, with some decent yields,” he said.
Fowler was asked about the prospects for another good year, just as the cold wave was looming.
“We can pray. That’s your best defense for anything,” he said.
Curtis DeBerry, owner of Progreso Produce, which has offices in Pharr and Boerne, voiced optimism about the upcoming crop.
“It looks to me like the valley crop started off with very good stands,” he said. “That should lead to good quality. We’ve had some good timely rains. It should be a very manageable crop, from a market aspect. It’s been spread out well, so we’ll harvest one area, then move on to another and another.”
Don Ed Holmes, owner of The Onion House in Weslaco, said he anticipates a better market due to shorter volumes from other regions.
“Idaho’s numbers look very manageable,” he said. “Their packouts probably aren’t as good, according to shippers we’ve talked to. That should make for less onions for us to have to cope with.”
The Onion House has doubled its acreage in the Winter Garden area this year, to about 400 acres, Holmes said.