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“There was nothing we could save”: heat wave mashed sweet Walla Walla onions

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In June, as the sun cooked the soil, the harvest began at Enriquez Farms, a medium-sized farm in Walla Walla specializing in the region’s famous sweet onions. Until then, alliums had thrived in warm weather, and Fernando Enriquez Sr., the eldest of a father-son duo who runs the farm, was excited about the year’s harvest.

“This whole field was beautiful onions,” said Enriquez Sr. “But the sun, it really hit him.”

The next day, he went to his fields and found that the tops of the oversized onions, cooked in record heat of up to 120 degrees, had started to develop soft, pale blisters just under their skin like paper.

Another day later, anything that hadn’t already been harvested was ruined.

“There was nothing we could save,” he said, stepping over the pods of thousands of broken red and yellow onions left to dry in the sun.

The heat hit some worse than others

The heat wave that blanketed the Northwest had an uneven impact on Walla Walla sweet onion growers, although none were unscathed.

“When the unprecedented 117 degree to 120 degree heat hit, we didn’t know what it would do,” Harry Hamada said.

The Hamadas are co-owners of Walla Walla River Packing and Storage, the largest producer and packer of Walla Walla Sweets. They grow 350 acres of Walla Walla sweet onions and ship about 16 million pounds of onions per average year.

The onions they planted last year were exceptional, said Hamada, who has cultivated onions since 1975. While the harvest tends to start later in June, conditions this year have led to the most harvest. early and highest yielding ever seen by Hamada, he said.

But many sweet onion growers in the valley are also transplanting onions much later, which are then harvested until this month. The Hamadas’ transplants, which come from Arizona, were still in the ground when the heat hit.

“It seems that part of our harvest did not hold up very well,” he said. “We have never experienced this in my life.

Yet with the prolific yield from the previous crop, Hamada said the farm had more or less reached breakeven point.

Onions tend to be heat resistant, said Sarah McClure, owner of Walla Walla Organics.

“But you know what, 114 degrees of heat for days and days? McClure said. “It was hard for them.”

McClure’s transplanted onions were also particularly affected, suffering from sunburn and probably having a shorter shelf life. In addition to the damage, onions never grew as big as they should have, she noted.

“Our last ones started off pretty small, which they did last year as well, but last year they caught up,” McClure said. “This year I think it was so hot that they kind of stopped.”

But, like Hamada’s, the onions McClure planted last fall were significantly larger than normal and are “the best tasting onions we’ve ever grown.”

Some devastated producers

The sweet and sour smell of thousands of onions cooked in the sun for weeks on end still fills the air of Enriquez farms.

“We lost about 98% of our crop,” said Fernando Enriquez Jr.

After graduating from college, the young Enriquez spent 12 years as a banker, but years ago decided to follow his father into agriculture. His grandfather had grown sugar cane in Oaxaca, Mexico.

In 2019, Enriquez Farms cultivated 140 acres of onions, according to an article in Onion Business, an industry magazine. But after being hit hard last year by the pandemic and the related effects on the workforce and the restaurant industry, the operation has had to downsize this year to around 40 acres. Still, crop insurance rates have remained extremely high, young Enriquez said, so the farm went private this year.

Now, because of the heat wave, the family is potentially considering eating the cost of an entire year’s harvest.

“It’s unprecedented,” said Enriquez Jr .. “I was born and raised here in the valley, my parents have been in this valley for over 50 years, and it never gets so hot at the start of the season. month of June.”

Onions have a high water content, and in the scorching heat of the June heat wave, this water began to be extracted from the onion. While Enriquez Sr. recently pulled up a crumbling red onion, weeks after abandoning the harvest to sit in the sun, he was still visibly sweating.

Enriquez Farms weren’t the only producers to see their harvest completely ruined by the heat, young Enriquez said.

“Another farmer who grows Walla Walla sweets, lost 80 acres,” he said. “Another small farmer that we helped establish, himself and his children, cultivated 10 acres and they lost 8 acres of their crop. “

Unable to sell the onions and unwilling to pay to harvest a worthless crop, the Enriquez family instead plowed their field several times, leaving the plucked onions in the sun for a few days to “polarize” or kill lingering diseases, before plowing them. plow again and drive them into the ground. Ripping up the crop of the year was a tough decision, said Enriquez Jr.

Even this year’s seeds, which would have grown next year’s crop, have been decimated. The pompom flower at the top of each onion plant should be filled to the brim with hundreds of pods, each one to contain about four seeds, Enriquez Sr. said. Not only were most of the pods withered and empty, but those that remained. had two or three seeds.

Normally, the flower head of this sweet onion would be almost solid with light green pods where next year’s Enriquez crop is located.

Without help from the federal government, they plan to cultivate 2-3 acres in 2022, or about 2% of their 2019 acreage.

“We hope that since [Gov. Jay] Inslee said the drought emergency the USDA will consider helping some of the growers, ”Enriquez Jr. said.“ I’m hopeful. ”


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