Despite drop in production, Washington still farms the most onion acres

PATERSON, Wash. -- Craig Engbretson's eyes are starting to water. That's what 6,000 tons of onions can do to you. The Horse Heaven Hills, Wash., farmer has been growing the fragrant bulbs since 1984, but he still has trouble keeping his eyes open...

PATERSON, Wash. -- Craig Engbretson's eyes are starting to water.

That's what 6,000 tons of onions can do to you.

The Horse Heaven Hills, Wash., farmer has been growing the fragrant bulbs since 1984, but he still has trouble keeping his eyes open as trucks and conveyor belts carry them from field to drying shed.

"It takes me a couple days" to get used to it, he says with a grimace and a smile.

The grimace is for the aroma; the smile is for his harvest.


Engbretson and four or five other growers on this plateau south of Prosser, Wash. -- known more for its wheat and wine grapes -- recently were finishing up their onion harvest.

Depending on whom you ask, these few farmers might produce half the state's onions, ranked as the 12th-most valuable crop at $111 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"There's a fair percentage of the state's onions right here," says Corey Schmitt, general manager of Bybee Produce, a neighbor of Engbretson's Paterson Onion. He declines, though, to say how many onions his company planted.

Estimate discrepancy

Acreage estimates for the entire state of Washington vary. Often when a figure is released, farmers disagree with it.

Growers of onions and other specialty crops often are coy about how much they plant for fear buyers might use the information against them when negotiating prices. Fewer than 1,000 farmers in the country grow onions, and competition is intense. Even a change of a few hundred acres from year to year can sway the market.

"They don't even like telling us," says Kim Reddin, a spokeswoman for the National Onion Association.

State agriculture surveys, meanwhile, use statistical samples and don't make estimates by county.


Engbretson figures the Horse Heaven Hills growers -- including himself and Bybee -- have half the state's onion acres. Other growers in the area put it at 25 percent. Tim Waters, a Washington State University extension agent in Pasco, pegs it at about 40 percent.

Those estimates do not include Mercer Canyons, which lies to the west near Alderdale, Wash. Mercer Canyons grows only dehydrated onions, small, hard bulbs used for flakes and powder.

Acre numbers

The National Onion Association ranks Washington as the highest onion acreage state but second in volume compared with its neighbors to the south, a growing area that encompasses Idaho and eastern Oregon.

This year, the state's crop of storage onions has dropped from 21,000 acres to 19,000 acres, according to USDA forecasts. That's roughly a 10 percent decrease. Across the nation, experts predicted overall production to drop about 6 percent as growers cut back to make up for an oversaturated market in 2007.

Engbretson says it all may mean higher prices for growers this year. He's looking forward to up to $15 per 50-pound bag of his white onions, for example. That's a huge leap up from the $2 or $3 that bagged onions fetched last year. He estimates it costs $5 per bag to grow, harvest and pack onions.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently reported prices of $16 to $20 per bag for white onions and $6 to $8.50 per bag for yellows. Red globe onions ranged from $5 to $7 per 25-pound sack.

"They're a very expensive crop to grow," Waters says.


They're fragile and susceptible to disease. They need water, but like cherries, rain at harvest can destroy a crop because they will rot in the field.

"Either there's too much water, not enough water, disease," Engbretson says.

Storage onions

Consider Horse Heaven an area to grow blue-collar onions.

They may not have the prestige of Walla Walla Sweets, which are grown under a federal marketing order and are harvested earlier in the year by hand. Those don't last very long in stores.

Horse Heaven Hills onions do, filling shelves at Costco, Wal-Mart and other grocery stores across the country throughout the winter. In fact, most growers and crop reports call them storage onions.

Engbretson grows about 500 acres of storage onions and 300 of sweet onions, also called early onions because they are harvested earlier in the summer.

No question about it, the Horse Heaven Hills is a great place to grow onions.


The growing season lasts nearly all year, it hardly rains and growers in the area use Columbia River water for irrigation, Schmitt says.

The area started in the 1980s as a location closer to the international shipping docks in Seattle than the former onion king, eastern Oregon. There was a time in the 1990s when about 80 percent of the Horse Heaven Hills crop was exported to Asian markets.

However, cheaper grown onions from China have cut into that some, Schmitt says. Most Horse Heaven onions are sold domestically now.

Horse Heaven Hills growers usually use machine harvesters that cut the tops of the onions and load them into trucks. Drivers haul them to storage warehouses that pump warm air over and under the onions to dry them.

Up here, you won't see onion-filled burlap sacks propped up in the fields for drying like you see along highways 22 and 223 south of Granger. That's hand harvesting and would require 200 to 300 workers in the fields, Schmitt says.

You will see Engbretson sniffling and blinking, picking through white onions as they pass on a conveyor belt into his warehouse. Five or six trucks often line up waiting to offload while the drivers sit outside in the shade, steering clear of the warehouse door and the unmistakable aroma.

Almost in one breath, the father of two adult children bemoans the rising costs and risks of farming and extols the beauty of the seemingly endless Horse Heaven Hills horizon.

"It's just a funny, funny world," he says.

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