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Decades of cooperation continue between researchers, growers to address onion issues

By
Kathleen Thomas Gaspar

Idaho-E. Oregon Spanish Sweet storage onion growers and other industry members have long relied on two university/Extension-affiliated groups of researchers and their training, equipment and facilities.

The relationships, in fact, have been in place not just for years but for several generations.

On the Oregon side of the Idaho-Oregon border is the Malheur Experiment Station near Ontario, OR, and the Parma Research and Extension Center is near Parma, ID. The Malheur facility is a branch of the Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station, part of Oregon State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences; the Parma center is operated by the University of Idaho College of Agricultural and Life Sciences through the Idaho Agricultural Experiment Station.

Both research centers have been in operation for many decades — Parma established in 1925 and Malheur about 20 years later. Throughout the intervening years and generations, family farmers and other onion industry members have called on the Extension services and the teams’ scientific expertise to address issues and deal with problems head-on.

The teams test onion varieties to find those most suited for the Treasure Valley’s unique soil conditions and for storage once harvested. In addition, the scientists look at water supplies and irrigation options as well as how to deal with insect, microbial and plant foes.

Scientists at Malheur are specialists in research pertaining to onions, wheat, corn, beans, sugar beets and potatoes, all of which are major crops in the Eastern Oregon region. And the station plays a part in generating hundreds of millions of dollars per year of farm gate income for producers and over $1 billion of economic activity in the county.

Director Stuart Reitz oversees the Malheur Station, where specialized onion facilities include storage, an artificial onion dryer, onion grader, a potato storage, a potato quality laboratory, a NOAA weather station, an AgriMet weather station, a chemical laboratory, a greenhouse with head house and a soil moisture sensor laboratory. Reports from the station are published at www.cropinfo.net.

Ongoing onion research includes the variety evaluations and studies to combat thrips, weeds, and Iris Yellow Spot Virus, and one of the facility’s major onion research accomplishment is the grower adoption of more effective herbicides, varieties with greater yields and resistance to botrytis neck rot, precise irrigation criteria, and drip irrigation.

Notably, the drip irrigation technology for onions that has been adopted widely in the United States was developed at the Malheur Experiment Station.

Reitz said of 2023, “We have our new irrigation and fertility management scientist, Dr. Udayakumar (Uday) Sekaran on board at the station. He started in November, and he has several research projects underway, including irrigation management for drip irrigated onions. So, we are excited about the impact he is already having.”

He added, “Joel Felix is still working on ways to better combat yellow nutsedge and other weeds in onions. Nutsedge continues to be the most problematic weed in the Treasure Valley and is becoming more important in the Columbia Basin. Also, we are continuing research on thrips management in onions. We are looking at different insecticides and when best to use various products to get the maximum effect from each one.”

Reitz said, “We also have a trial on what happens if I spray every week versus every 10 days versus every two weeks. Thrips feeding damage may also make onions more susceptible to fungal diseases, like Stemphylium leaf blight, and so we have a trial to see how thrips management impacts the development of Stemphylium.”

The team continues to research produce safety, and Reitz said, “I’m working with Dr. Joy Waite-Cusic with the OSU Dept of Food Science and Technology, Tim Waters with WSU, Linda Harris with UC-Davis and Faith Kritzer with the University of Georgia to see if certain production practices like irrigation methods or pesticide applications may be potential sources of contamination.”

At Parma’s main station and other locales around the area, more than 200 acres are devoted to research of several major crops. The Idaho center also has year-round greenhouse space, growth chamber rooms for entomology research and storage for fruit and vegetables for post-harvest research. There is also office, classroom and lab space.

Mike Thornton, professor of plant sciences at the University of Idaho, said he is engaged in two major projects this year: The impact of wildfire smoke on potatoes and influencing soil temperature to maximize onion yield and quality.

The soil temperature project for onions “is also meant to address some of the things we have seen during the extreme heat events we have experienced the past few years,” Thornton said.

“High soil temperatures during the bulb initiation period have been shown to reduce onion yields. We are using treatments with straw mulch and Kaolinite clay that reflect sunlight to reduce soil temperature and evaluating how that influences onion yield and bulb size. We are also including treatments like pelleted biochar that absorb sunlight to raise soil temperatures to see if that results in a reduction in yield.”

Regarding the wildfire smoke, which affected a number of crops in the Northwest last year, Thornton said, “We are exposing potatoes to high smoke levels for six week during the middle of the growing season to see if we can measure any impact on yield. We are basically trying to simulate the conditions experienced during some of the heavy wildfire smoke seasons in the western United States over the past few summers.” 

Each new season brings a new challenge or a different twist to an existing issue, and as they have for the better part of a century, Idaho-E. Oregon onion growers and handlers turn to the researchers at the Parma Research Center and the Malheur Experiment Station for direction.

Tenacity, resilience and teamwork are important in any industry, and when it comes to growing, shipping and researching onions, the Idaho-E. Oregon team is time-tested and history-proven. Experience counts. And IEO has it.

Kathleen Thomas Gaspar

About Kathleen Thomas Gaspar  |  email

Kathleen is a Colorado native and has been writing about produce for more than three decades and has been a professional journalist for more than four decades. Over the years she’s covered a cornucopia of crops grown both in the United States and abroad, and she’s visited dozens of states – traveling by car from her home base in Colorado to the Northwest and Southeast, as far as Vancouver, BC, and Homestead, FL. Now semi-retired, Kathleen continues to write about produce and is also penning an ongoing series of fiction novels. She’s a wife, mother of two grown sons and grandmother of six, and she and her fly fisherman husband Abe reside in the Banana Belt town of Cañon City.

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