REIDSVILLE, Ga. — Sweet onion marketers rely on the offshore deal to maintain consistent demand and availability throughout the year.

In Peru, growers in early March began sowing the seedbeds for plantings that harvest and load on ships in late July and early August.

Credited with pioneering the offshore sweet onion deal, Keystone Fruit Marketing Inc., Greencastle, Pa., has marketed Peruvian onions since 1995.

The addition of a grower in the southern region of Peru helped Keystone extend fresh shipments this season from early February to the end of February and into March, said Michael Blume, salesman.

That helped when the Peru deal ended a little earlier than normal, he said.

“As there are storage onions in the U.S. in February and March, we had arrivals into the U.S. as late as the first week of March,” Blume said.

“We had freshly harvested onions coming in within a week of the last orders being shipped out. Everything stayed very fresh. Quality was excellent with that late deal that we had.”

Keystone accounts for about a third of the Peruvian onions sold into the U.S., Blume said.

Involved in the Peru deal since the mid-1990s, Bland Farms LLC, Glennville, has 600 hectares or 1,500 acres of production, similar to last season.

Michael Hively, chief financial officer and chief operating officer, said he expects demand for Peruvian onions to continue to strengthen.

“I think that growth will be coming from the sweet onion category,” he said.

“Now that customers have sweet onions 52 weeks a year, they’re moving away from the yellow storage onions. They’re buying sweets as a staple as opposed to a specialty item.”

Involved in contraseasonal sweet onions since the late 1990s, Shuman Produce Inc. remains the third largest grower-shipper of Peruvian sweet onions, said Mark Shuman, general manager.

Shuman called the 2010-11 Peru season favorable.

“The year was fantastic,” he said.

“We had the best year we have ever had in Peru. We had quality, consistent supplies and consistent demand in the marketplace.”

Shuman said it is fortunate that Vidalia packers’ retail customers and their consumers can find the Peruvian sweets from September through early March. He said about 75% of Peru’s production is shipped to the U.S.

Hendrix Produce Inc., Metter, sometimes bridges Texas onions with Mexican onions, depending on quality, price and volume. If Texas onions are better, Hendrix runs Mexico from mid-February through late March before Texas begins at the end of March, said R.E. Hendrix, president.

To keep customers from switching to other suppliers, Hendrix said Vidalia shippers have to be involved in the offshore deals. He said retailers expect to receive sweet onions when they need them.

“Quality (in the offshore deal) has been good the last three to four years,” Hendrix said.

“We have had three to four good seasons and seen some come in with some staining or dark appearance on them. The offshore deal is a substitute. They are not the Vidalia, that’s for sure.”

Williamson Produce Inc., Wilson, N.C., which has an operation south of Lyons, has been in the Chilean deal since 2005. It skipped the following two seasons but re-entered the deal in 2008.

“The Chilean deal has been fairly good,” said Billy Williamson, owner.

“It’s not high-volume. Not as many chain stores use that deal. Chilean onions are more expensive than other onions. The Mexican deal has a big impact on Chile. If Mexico starts early and comes in cheaper, it cuts off Chile.”

The Chilean deal usually begins harvesting Dec. 10 with shipments starting Jan. 1 through February.

L.G. Herndon Jr. Farms Inc., Lyons, has imported contraseasonal sweet onions for 15 years.

L.G. “Bo” Herndon Jr., president, said the deal isn’t without its challenges.

“You are dealing with another growing area, where product comes across the ocean and has to deal with (U.S.) Customs,” he said.

“It’s a lot different than having onions in your own back door.”

The ships unload Herndon product from Miami and Savannah ports.

Stanley Farms, Vidalia, has long worked without offshore onions. During the 2010-11 season, the grower-shipper began dabbling in Peruvian product by working with grower agents.

As soon as the Peru deal finished a little earlier than normal, Stanley Farms ran out of sweet onions and lost some of its customers, said Brian Stanley, sales manager.

He said Stanley is studying securing relationships with growers in other areas such as Mexico and Texas.

“There’s definitely interest there,” Stanley said.

“It’s something we see where Stanley Farms can grow. We know that is what we will have to do to stay in business year-round.”