The sweet onion market is more crowded than ever these days, so it’s more important than ever that Walla Walla sweet onions stand out in the crowd, according to growers, shippers and marketing agents of the product.

“There are a lot of people who want to get into this market and are working hard to do that,” said Mike Locati, chairman of the Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Committee and president of Locati Farms in Walla Walla, Wash.

There are two primary means of helping Walla Walla sweet onions gain the notice of consumers, Locati said.

“One way is to invest in research and development of product lines. The other way is to invest in marketing,” he said.

With only about 30 growers licensed to produce Walla Walla sweet onions, the product has a head start in standing out on its own, Locati said.

“With our deal, we’ve got the onion and we have our own seed for the varieties we raise here,” he said.

“We focus on marketing more than in research and development. We have the product — we just need to get it out there.”

Locati said the market is getting more crowded with sweet onions, and said growers and shippers have to meet precise standards.

“People pretty much know if they’re getting a Walla Walla, they’re getting a sweet onion,” Locati said.

“The guys coming in new always question how sweet is it. We have ours tested at National Onion Labs. They have a database of what we produce in our facility. You talk to buyers and, as long as they know they’re getting it from a reputable seller, it’s not a problem.”

It’s up to rival products to try to keep up, Locati added.

“The other guys have to prove themselves,” he said.

“They have to go through certification on their sweet onions and grow the business. Marketing at least gets your foot in the door. That’s our competition. There always seems to be more competition. It used to be onions are onions.”

Differentiating Walla Walla sweets from other sweet onions is central to Kathy Fry’s job as executive director of marketing for the committee.

“They’re not all alike, contrary to what some people think,” Fry said.

“What I try to make people understand is they already know the Walla Walla has a short shelf life. It’s a gourmet onion and they’re not going to sit on your shelf and wait on you for three months.”

The shelf-life issue is a potential drawback, but Fry said it’s a worthwhile tradeoff.

“There’s some disappointment, but we wouldn’t be a Walla Walla any other way,” she said.

The product’s limited availability also creates a marketing opportunity, Fry said.

“There’s a short opportunity to get them,” she said. “There are a lot of people that just don’t want to settle for anything else. It’s kind of hard to settle when you’re hooked on a certain type.”

Teaching is a big part of Fry’s job, she said.

“I go to foodservice shows, and I usually spend most of my time educating people on when our harvest starts and when they’ll be able to get Walla Walla,” she said.

Growers spread the word, as well, said Ben Cavalli Jr., owner of Cavalli’s Onion Acres in Walla Walla.

“There’s sweet onions all over because everybody wants a sweet onion,” Cavalli said.

“A hot onion in a sandwich just ruins the taste, so the Walla Walla sweet onion is hard to beat. You have all that juice in there.”

Consumers are quick to pick up on the difference between Walla Walla sweets and other sweet onions, Cavalli said.

“A lot of people who can’t eat onions, they try a Walla Walla and they come back,” he said.

Keystone Fruit Marketing Inc. in Walla Walla puts its products through rigorous testing, said Dan Borer, sales manager.

“When you’re buying the Walla Walla brand, it’s third-party tested for flavor profile,” he said. “That’s what builds the uniqueness is the standard built by the certification. The customer gets what he pays for. That’s what sets us apart from other so-called sweets.”

Heritage is another edge the Walla Walla sweet onion has, said Matt Curry, president of Curry & Co., Brooks, Ore.

“The Walla Walla brand has a long and established history as a sweet onion,” he said, adding that the product has been grown in the region for more than 100 years.

“I believe it has the most brand recognition in the category, along with Vidalias, and is often seen as the original or one of the originals.”