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Sweet onions on a year-round roll

HERMISTON, Ore. - Delbert Gehrke likes onions. That can't be a bad thing for the general manager of Riverpoint Farms, a Hermiston company that has turned the once-seasonal sweet onions into a year-round business.

"In 1998 we could see there was a growing market for sweet onions, so we started looking around for what would grow in the Hermiston area that would be sweet and marketable," Gehrke said.

The company was called American Farms then, and it had never grown sweet onions. Gehrke settled on a minor variety from Nunhems Seed and in 2000 put in a few experimental plots.

"We found that certain areas are better than others, due to soil and temperatures and the actual growing practices that lend this onion to be mild and sweet. We did a lot of taste-testing, a lot of trials until we finally found what we thought would work," Gehrke said.

They christened the new variety Hermiston Sweets.

Today Riverpoint Farms grows 32 million pounds of Hermiston Sweets on 500 acres in Umatilla County. The company sells the fresh onions from September to December and grows Walla Walla Sweets in the Walla Walla district for sale from June through August. Partners in Texas and Georgia supply sweet onions through the rest of the year.

"A sweet onion is a specialized premium onion that can't be stored," said Bob Hale, Riverpoint Farms' president. "Sweet onions have a higher water content and need to go directly from the field to customers."

The year-round availability of sweet onions allows the company to develop strong and consistent relationships with customers. The company markets fresh onions and a variety of peeled and sliced onions to food service, industrial ingredient and retail operations.

Certification

Unlike the Walla Walla area, Hermiston hasn't had a reputation for producing sweet onions. Riverpoint Farms has developed specific nutrient and water management practices to take advantage of different soil types to produce onions sweet enough to be certified by the National Onion Lab in Vidalia, Ga.

"We took a unique variety and did something different with it that no other grower has been able to do," Hale said.

Each year before harvest, the National Onion Lab takes samples from Riverpoint Farms' fields, tests them for sugar content and develops a flavor profile. Onions from sections of the field that produced certified samples then can be marketed as certified sweet onions.

"One hundred percent of our 500 acres was certified this year. Last year it was 90 percent. We are still learning, but we know we have it down," Hale said.

In mid-September dozens of workers stood along the processing line at Riverpoint Farms' packing plant on Westland Road west of Hermiston, working to the steady beat of the rapidly moving machinery. Some checked the onions for quality, while others packed them into cases and bags. The open warehouse smelled pleasantly of onions.

A computerized sorting line weighed each onion individually to determine if it was a small, medium or large and dropped it into the appropriate bin. The 40-pound cases and 10-pound bags, labeled with Riverpoint Farms' trademarked Hermiston Sweets logo, were destined for Safeway, Costco and WinCo Foods stores.

During harvest the packing plant runs 16 to 17 hours a day and employs two shifts of workers. At exceptionally busy times the plant can run a dozen packing stations, though three or four is more common.

"We're the largest onion grower, packer, shipper and processor in the U.S," Hale said. "Our interest is in valued-added, market-driven agriculture, not in just growing a generic onion. We want to create trademark brands with market recognition to create value in our business."

Source: Capital Press

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