Every producer likes to hear, “it's better than a year ago.” And that's what Don Ed Holmes at the Weslaco, Texas, Onion House had to say about this year's onion harvest in the Rio Grande Valley. “Harvest conditions were perfect, the driest March and April in a long time.”

That may sound good, but there was a down side to onion production, too. During the earlier part of the year there was more rain than onions could handle. Fungal diseases stunted the growth of many of the onions.

Besides fungal diseases, Juan Anciso, vegetable specialist at Texas Cooperative Extension said: “We've had some problems that caused considerable leaf deterioration. Although we suspect a bacterial disease, the exact cause hasn't been determined.” Affected plants develop water-soaked lesions that appear on the outer leaves first, then spread to the inner leaves. Anciso reported that most of the fields he visited this year had these symptoms. Onions affected by the disease fail to grow to full size.

Anciso has been observing these particular symptoms of onion “blight” since 1994. However, this level of severity has not been experienced since the 1996-97 season.

The “blight” has left scientists scratching their heads. Often bacterial diseases are brought in by storms, so it is possible that the Valley's snowstorm that hit unsuspecting residents on Christmas Day and left some parts of the Valley with up to 6 inches of snow could have been the culprit. But no one can know for sure.

No answers

This poses a particularly aggravating problem: since no cause for the disease has been determined, and no one knows how it was introduced or how it spread, nobody knows what can be done to control or manage it. This year multiple applications of fungicides and copper were applied without success.

“Last year was a bumper year as far as yield was concerned. Producers were harvesting 558 bags per acre,” said Anciso. Although the season isn't over, he expects yields to be only about 400 bags per acre, a little less than the 435-bag average. Last year Valley farmers planted 9,103 acres of onions; this year they planted 2,000 more acres.

“Growers who normally grow cotton and grain have 40 to 100 acres of onions this year.”

Since local onions are easily bruised, a situation that leads to rotting, Valley onions are clipped by hand, loaded by hand and sorted by size. This may be a lot more work, but doing so assures a top quality product.

So how will this all shake out? John McClung, manager of the South Texas Onion Committee, said: “The beginning of the year we thought we'd take a blood bath. There are just too many onions in the world. But, overall, it's turned out to be a pretty good year.”

As Valley onions were being harvested in late April, jumbo yellows were selling for $8 to $10 per 50-pound bag and small to medium sizes, $4 — quite a price differential. A lot of smaller onions are heading to market, and the big ones are at a premium.