After two rough years, Texas onion growers scaled back acreage by 20 percent this season, but with Northwest storage supplies low and Mexican sweet onions slowed to a trickle, Lone Star State growers are looking at promising markets and great weather that has helped Texas get out of the gate early and make the most out of what is in the ground.
"Onion acreage is down quite a bit this season, but on the flip side the guys that do have a crop are optimistic that prices should be strong," said Bret Erickson, president of the Texas International Produce Association. "We still need moisture -- our soils are awfully salty these days which can hinder size. Some sweet rain would surely be nice. But quality looks to be excellent and we will have a good supply of sweet onions out of Texas."
Problems in Mexico and fewer Northwest storage onions have Texas set up for a solid market moving into the heart of its season.
In late February, "The market's making a little adjustment here right now, Mexico's picked up a little volume at the end of the month -- which is kind of the wrong time for Texas growers -- which led to some little lighter prices. But my own opinion is the crop down there is not a big crop and I think it will adjust itself and come around, there aren't too many onions in Mexico," said Don Ed Holmes of The Onion House in Weslaco, TX.
"The weather's been perfect and the onions are ready to pack -- we can almost run them right out of the fields, they're just absolutely beautiful," said Mike Martin, president of Rio Queen in Mission, TX. "We need rain, but at the same time we don't want it right now. Texas onion acreage is down very significantly in the Uvalde/Winter Garden area, not down as significantly in the Rio Grande Valley but they are down some."
Added Mr. Holmes, "There was one week in there you could actually call winter and that was it, the first week of January. Prior to that it was unusually warm and since then it's been a little above average so we're looking at the deal being a little early. The yields will be off from a year ago but the quality looks real good. Overall size could be a shade smaller because we haven't had enough water in the reservoirs and water quality is fairly poor. There's a lot of salt in the water, which may penalize you on your size a little bit. But we're still looking at the main season starting somewhere around the 25th of March and going through April with some pretty good volumes."
Given Texas' ongoing water woes, some growers actually decided to forego planting this year and instead sell their water rights.
"It's been a struggle for the onion guys in the last couple of years," said Ray Prewett, executive vice president of the Texas Vegetable Association.
Though some growers stepped aside this season and most cut back, at least one -- Rio Queen -- saw opportunity in the shortfall and actually increased acreage significantly.
Ongoing violence in the years-old Mexican drug wars had decreased Texans' travel to do business in that country, but had not hampered produce production or exports from Mexico. This year's onion deal could be a harbinger of things to come -- and represent an opportunity for Texas growers of sweet onions and other commodities.
"We took a gamble and our Texas production will increase significantly, at least by 50 percent and possible as much as two-thirds," Mr. Martin said. "Our grower base in Mexico has cut back on their acreage, due in part to water issues but probably more due to security issues. The markets are solid, there's good demand for our sweet onions. We do have a handful of reds and a handful of whites. So we're going to be busy. Even though our Mexican onions supplies are going to be down our total is still going to be up."
Another grower, Tex Mex Sales LLC, decided to take matters into its own hands and grow everything it markets.
"We've always grown a little bit ourselves but after last year and the way things went with yields -- and weather was big contributing factor -- we decided out of Texas to grow our own onions and that's it, 100 percent," said Tex Mex co-owner Mike Davis. "We do have a lot of retail business and you can't do retail business if you don't know what you have."