Ag at large: Onions spice up state’s ag economy

From 2018-19, California produced over 4 million tons of onions. FILE PHOTO

Production of onions is a substantial contributor to California’s agricultural economy, but tracing the state’s numerous onion products to market is a challenge. There seems to be no end to the vegetable’s versatility and its traditional contribution to tasty food preparation.

Even though California can boast fresh onions that compete with the most celebrated varieties from traditional, mostly southern, states, its climate and soil characteristics encourage year-round production of versatile extra-spicy varieties that undergo processing to enhance the flavor of hundreds of food products on grocery shelves at home and abroad.

Drying, slicing, dicing, grinding and dehydrating natural onion products are all significant steps in the overall consumption of California’s annual production of onions.  Sometimes onions are found in products where you’d least expect them –– ice cream, cakes, some pies, apparently for good reason. Dogs and cats would be lost without them as ingredients in their favorite rations.

While onions in their fresh state appear to be hardy and resistant, they are susceptible to one of California’s most prolific crop diseases. It is designated as onion rot, and even a spoonful of infected onion tissue implanted in a field can contaminate the entire acreage, causing onions or garlic planted there to decay and become mush.

Mostly because of the persistence and devastation of onion rot, growers of both onions and garlic throughout the state have organized under a state marketing order that allows them to seek researchers in several locations willing to train their microscopes and facilities on materials or procedures that will control or alleviate the incessant threat of the disease.

The determination and support by the combined industries has resulted in creation of the California Garlic and Onion Research Advisory Board. It is located in Clovis, central to both industries. With oversight from the California Department of Food & Agriculture it collects and disperses funds contributed equitably by all producers to qualified researchers at several institutions who are dedicated to finding a remedy for onion rot.

One of onion rot’s major victims has been the rich soils in the southern Santa Clara Valley near Gilroy. Although the growing of onions and garlic is doomed there because of the persistent virus, processing facilities for both onions and garlic continue to operate in the area, undergirding the important processing-dehydrating aspect of the industry. And, of course, the virus has not put a damper on Gilroy’s annual garlic festival.

Fresno and Kings Counties are major onion producing counties, closely followed by Blythe in eastern San Bernardino County and Brawley in the Imperial Valley.  Both production and research of onions are prominent in the Tulelake area.  Significant research regarding onion growth and culture is concentrated at the University of California’s research facility at Tulelake.

While onion production of 4,137,000 tons in California in the 2018-2019 season is significant, it was far outstripped by the Idaho-Eastern Oregon region with 31,850,000 tons, the largest production area in the nation.  Other leaders in tonnage produced include: Washington, Nevada and Colorado, Western Oregon, Nevada and New York.

The cycle of onion production in California is practically a year-round enterprise. Much of the harvesting and sorting is by hand in the field, and processing facilities operate around the calendar.

Noted for causing tears to flow, onions, as part of the fabulous mix of farm products grown in the Golden State, annually create smiles, economic stability and strength, and thousands of jobs, a very spicy result.