With just a few planting days remaining, the 2011/2012 onion crop in the Lower Rio Grande Valley will likely be down by as much as 20 percent compared to last year due to a weak market, according to Dr. Juan Anciso, a Texas AgriLife Extension Service vegetable specialist in Weslaco.

“There’s just no indicator out there to push growers to jump up and start planting onions,” Anciso said. “Low market prices last year left a bad taste in their mouths, plus storage onions in the northwest U.S. are fetching lower prices now than they were last year at this time.”

Prices of only $5 to $7 for a 50-pound bag of onions last year have had a lingering effect, Anciso said.

“Prices that low don’t cover the cost of production, so some growers aren’t planting anything at all this year,” he said. “They planted about 10,000 acres of onions in the four-county Valley area last year, so I’m guessing we’ll end up with 8,200 to 8,500 acres this year.”

The market was so low last year, some growers ended up selling what’s called open loads.

“In open loads a buyer doesn’t guarantee the grower anything,” he said.

“The load will be sold when and if it can, which means the grower could end up with as little as $3.50 or $4 a bag. That’s a total loss.”

Last year’s poor market was in huge contrast to the 2009/2010 season when onion prices were off the charts, Anciso said.

“Growers back then were getting $25 to $40 a bag,” he said. “That’s just the volatility of the onion business.”

Onions being planted in the Valley through mid-November will be harvested beginning in late March, through April and most of May.

While this year’s drought is affecting plant growth even on irrigated fields, it did not threaten water supplies, Anciso said.

“We haven’t had any good rains to leach down salts that build up in the soil from irrigation water,” he said. "That’s starting to affect stands. New plants just don’t come up from seeds the way they should, but growers compensate by planting more seeds than they normally would.

“But the good news is that thanks to the storm we had last year when we were releasing lots of water through the main canal and into the Gulf of Mexico, we have plenty of water in our reservoirs at Falcon and Amistad dams, probably enough to last us through 2012.”

Such is not the case in the Winter Garden area, southwest of San Antonio, an area which harvests spring vegetables shortly after the Valley does.

“They depend on deep water wells, and they have not had sufficient rainfall to recharge their aquifer so their acreage may be off too.”

Acreage of other leafy greens planted in the fall for a spring harvest in the Valley will also likely be down, Anciso said.

“Cilantro, parsley, collard greens, mustard greens—all those crops will also likely be down in acreage, but not as much as onions. I’d suspect acreage there will drop by about 10 percent. But the reason is the same—a fairly low market last year—and there’s no indicators that the market will get strong.”

Some leafy greens take only 40 days to mature, in time for the Thanksgiving market, but most will be harvested in the spring, Anciso said.