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Devastating losses for Idaho and Eastern Oregon onion industry

ieoooooThe Idaho and Eastern Oregon onion-growing region located in Idaho and Malheur County, OR, is one of the largest growing regions in the United States, and provides approximately 45 percent of the onions consumed in the United States from mid-August until April. Most of the onions are sold to foodservice. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the area has seen a sharp decline in sales that will likely extend into the new season this fall and potentially crippling a historically vibrant onion-growing area.

On April 20, the Idaho Onion Growers Association, the Malheur County Oregon Onion Association and the Idaho-Oregon Fruit & Vegetable Association sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue explaining the dire situation that the growers and shippers are currently experiencing and will most likely face this fall. The letter explained that due to the massive closings of restaurants and foodservice establishments from measures taken to curb the spread of COVID-19, the onion growing region has been extremely hard hit. 

During most of the first quarter of 2020 and even before the mandatory closing of restaurants and food establishments, business was down significantly with the fear of the spread of COVID-19. Since the majority of the onions from the Idaho and Eastern Oregon onion-growing region go to the foodservice industry, it resulted in the substantial loss of orders. Currently, many of the area shippers who were close to finishing for the season will not be able to sell or in some cases even give away their onions.

What the shippers and growers are experiencing right now is serious but it is nothing compared to the challenges they will likely face when they begin harvesting the 2020 crop in early August. Since the area’s onions are normally planted early in the spring, most of the 2020 crop was planted before it was evident what the effect of the virus would be. With onions in the ground and already progressing nicely, it is anticipated that shippers will be able to market only a fraction of the new season’s crop.

“Area processors are cutting pre-season contracts by 35-45 percent," said Paul Skeen, president of the Malheur County Oregon Onion Growers Association. "Because of lost business and the foodservice business reduced by 50-75 percent, it leaves the growers with a crop that is planted and that likely can’t be marketed.”

Skeen added, “Growers planted the crop before the devastating effects of the virus and consequently we had no opportunity to make planting and planning adjustments. The investments have already been made. Along with what the area’s growers and shippers are experiencing with the COVID-19 displaced business, we have also had to deal with imported onions coming into the country taking space that could be used for our domestic onions. If this area doesn’t get help and fast, the outlook for one of the most famous onion regions in the nation is bleak.”

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