REIDSVILLE, Ga. —  Imported contraseasonal sweet onions have become important in the merchandising of the sweet onion category.

Peruvian-grown sweet onions usually begin shipments in early September and finish in early to mid-February.

Keystone Fruit Marketing Inc., Greencastle, Pa., is credited with pioneering the offshore sweet onion deal.

Offshore winter onions help sustain sweet onion purchases

Doug Ohlemeier

R.E. Hendrix, president of Hendrix Produce Inc., Metter, Ga., in front of some imported sweet onions in late February.
Grower-shippers say imported contraseasonal sweet onions from places such as Peru, Chile and Mexico have become important in the merchandising of the sweet onion category.

Keystone has offices in Peru, grows some of its own acreage and has contracts with growers.

“The volume out of Peru has been steady during the last several years,” said Marty Kamer, partner and sales manager.

Kamer said the offshore deal remains important as retailers seeking high quality sweet onions during the winter have few options.

Barry Rogers, president of Sweet Onion Trading Co., Melbourne, Fla., was one of the early salesmen who worked the offshore deal during the 1990s while working for Seald Sweet International, Vero Beach, Fla., which at the time sold sweet onions for Bland Farms Inc., Glennville.

“With the offshore deal, it’s a fresh onion during the winter,” he said.

“You don’t have to worry about failures in the cooler. There are a lot of positives about keeping a fresh onion in front of the consumer.”

For 13 years, Shuman Produce Inc. has invested in growers in Peru and has become the third largest Peruvian grower, said John Shuman, president.

Peru remains highly popular because the deal marries up with the end of Vidalia deal in August.

Harvesting in Peru normally starts at the end of July and shippers can have first arrivals at U.S. ports by the end of August.

“Vidalias are consistently sweeter than the offshore product, but the Peruvians grow the same varieties grown in Georgia, so the quality is outstanding and they have good shelf life and flavor,” Shuman said.

“I can’t say if they’re as good as Vidalias, but the Peruvian onions are just about the closest thing we can find.”

Shuman has staff and offices that maintain grower relations and oversees fields, food safety practices, order fulfillment and logistics issues in exporting the onions to the U.S.

Bland Farms has been involved in the offshore deal since 1995.

“We are the largest shipper this year by far (from Peru),” said Michael Hively, general manager.

“While other importers have dropped in volume, we have increased our movement. With our sales staff, we’re not as exposed as others because of how we do things.”

Hively said Bland this past winter invested as much as $2 million in the deal before shipping its first carton of Peruvian onions.

That’s up from the $1.2 million it invested last year, he said.

“We feel comfortable that the program is a sustainable program that we need to have for that consistency,” Hively said.

“The more capital you can put in on the front end, the better the product will yield on the back end because you have more control over the crop.”

Hively said he thinks the Peruvian deal will continue to grow.

However, because of Bland’s diversification into growing sweet onions in other regions, that growth, he said, may not be the same as in years past.

Bland has about 1,500 acres in Peru.

Four Corners Farms, Register, entered the Peru deal in the mid-2000s.

Rawls Neville, operations manager, said the program was more challenging during the first couple of years but has since become a more stable operation.

“We have had good yields in our Peru fields,” he said. “The onions look good. We are the actual grower there.”

Neville said Four Corners, which markets its onions through Byron Center, Mich.-based Van Solkema Produce Inc., shipped 165 loads this past fall and winter from Peru and plans to increase volume to 225 loads next season.

Ronny Collins, president and chief executive officer of Plantation Sweets, Cobbtown, has invested with Peru growers since the early 2000s.

“Any time you are sourcing product that’s that far away from you, it can be a challenge,” he said.

“It’s not like having the product here on your own land. But we have been able to meet the challenges all these years. Providing our customer base with a year-round supply of sweet onions works well for them and us.”

Jaime Brannen, sales manager of Gerrald’s Vidalia Sweet Onions Inc., Statesboro, said this season’s Peruvian deal started off slow. 

“The onions of the grower we contract with in Peru turned out to be more medium-sized,” he said.

“The medium market was slow here so we quit importing them. You could get mediums or colossals from Peru. It was difficult to get the perfect jumbo, which is what our chain store customers wanted.”