Owyhee Produce reflects on a challenging year for the onion industry

Posted at 4:08 PM, Apr 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-01 18:08:58-04

PARMA, Idaho — It has been a challenging year for onion farmers in the Snake River Region on the border of Idaho and Oregon after the pandemic crippled the supply chain.

Last year we caught up with Owyhee Produce after they had to dump out their onions because there was nowhere to distribute them when the country went into lockdown.

A year later third-generation Idaho farmer Shea Myers tells us the industry has rebounded thanks to government programs and his workers ability to continue working even as his employees started catching the coronavirus.

Owyhee Produce received help from the Paycheck Protection Program that every business qualified for and the Sustainable Farming Assurance Programme, or SFAP, helped the produce industry offset some of the losses from the onions that went to waste.

But Myers said the Farmers to Food Box Program was a catalyst in helping farmers distribute their food.

"The idea was they could help the families that need the food, they could help the distributors and wholesalers whose business was down because they closed all the restaurants and they could help the farmers," said Myers. "It has a pretty significant impact."

Myers told us annually people in the United States consume 350 truckloads of onions on a daily basis but that number jumped to 450 last year, he doesn't give all the credit to the USDA's Farmers to Food Box Program, but it certainly helped as it happened at the right time.

"It's been difficult for the people that do those surveys to figure out where that consumption has gone," said Myers.

The pandemic has also made it difficult for onion farmers to plan their future crops, the average cost versus consumption model has also been disrupted and they can't rely on past numbers like they've used to do.

"We are deciding a year plus in advance how much we have to plant and how much we have to have to cover our consumer base," said Myers. "The volatility in consumption and cost are much higher today than they were two or three years ago."

Myers said they have experienced increased costs in labor by 20 percent on the Idaho side and 13 percent on the Oregon side and the cost of other materials have increased as well.

Speaking of employees, there wasn't an outbreak of COVID at Owyhee Produce, but Myers said they would get a case or two every week and over the past year everybody ended up getting sick because they had to keep working.

"I think that is an important thing to talk about a lot of us didn’t have a choice," said Myers. "The personal protection equipment only goes so far and does so much so we just kind of dealt with it."

All the employees at Owyhee Produce have received their vaccination after Oregon made agricultural workers a priority last week.

The Snake River Region along with Washington are the two top producers of onions in the United States and Owyhee Produce continues to find new ways to innovate.