In June, as the sun baked the ground, harvest began at Enriquez Farms, a midsized operation in Walla Walla specializing in the region’s famous sweet onions. Up to that point, the alliums had thrived in the warm weather, and Fernando Enriquez Sr., the elder of a father-son duo that manages the farm, was excited for the year’s crop.
“All of this field, it was beautiful onions,” Enriquez Sr. said. “But the sun, it really hit it.”
The next day, he walked out to his fields and discovered that the tops of the oversized onions, baked by record heat as high as 120 degrees, had begun to develop soft, pale blisters just beneath their papery skin.
Another day later, everything that had not already been harvested was ruined.
“There was nothing we could save,” he said, stepping over the husks of thousands of broken red and yellow onions left to dry out in the sun.
Heat hit some worse than others
The heat wave that blanketed the Northwest had an uneven impact on Walla Walla sweet onion growers, though none were unscathed.
“When the unprecedented 117, 120 degree heat hit, we didn’t know what it would do,” said Harry Hamada.
The Hamadas are part-owners of Walla Walla River Packing and Storage, the largest producer and packer of Walla Walla Sweets. They farm 350 acres of Walla Walla sweet onions and ship around 16 million pounds of onions in an average year.
The onions they planted last year were exceptional, said Hamada, who has grown onions since 1975. While the harvest tends to start later in June, this year’s conditions led to the earliest harvest and biggest yields Hamada has ever seen, he said.
But many sweet onion growers in the valley also transplant onions significantly later, which then are harvested as late as this month. The Hamadas’ transplants, which come from Arizona, were still in the ground when the heat hit.
“It seems like some of our crop, they didn’t hold up very well,” he said. “We’ve never gone through that in my lifetime.”
Still, with the prolific yield from the earlier crop, Hamada said the farm more or less broke even.
Onions tend to be resistant to heat, said Sarah McClure, owner of Walla Walla Organics.
“But you know what, 114 degree heat for days and days?” McClure said. “It was hard on them.”
McClure’s transplant onions were also hit particularly hard, suffering from sunburn and a likely shorter shelf life. In addition to the damage, the onions never quite grew as large as they should have, she noted.
“Our later ones started out kind of small, which they did last year, too, but last year they caught up,” McClure said. “This year, I think it was so hot they just kind of shut down.”
But, like Hamada’s, the onions McClure planted last fall were significantly bigger than normal and are “the best tasting onions we’ve ever grown.”
Some growers devastated
The sour-sweet smell of thousands of onions left to bake in the sun for weeks still fills the air at Enriquez Farms.
“We lost about 98% of our crop,” said Fernando Enriquez Jr.
After graduating college, the younger Enriquez spent 12 years as a banker, but decided years ago to follow his father into farming. His grandfather had grown sugar cane in Oaxaca, Mexico.
In 2019, Enriquez Farms grew 140 acres of onions, according to an article in Onion Business, an industry magazine. But after being hit hard last year by the pandemic and the related effects on the labor force and restaurant industry, the operation had to downsize this year to around 40 acres. Yet crop insurance rates remained onerously high, the younger Enriquez said, so the farm went without this year.
Now, because of the heat wave, the family potentially is looking at eating the cost of an entire year’s crop.
“It’s unprecedented,” Enriquez Jr. said. “I was born and raised here in the valley, my parents have been in this valley for over 50 years, and it’s just never that hot at the beginning of June.”
Onions have a high water content, and in the blistering heat of June’s heat wave, that water began to be squeezed out of the onion. As Enriquez Sr. lifted a ruined red onion recently, weeks after the crop was abandoned to sit in the sun, it was still visibly sweating.
Enriquez Farms were not the only growers to have their crop utterly ruined by the heat, the younger Enriquez said.
“Another farmer that farms Walla Walla sweets, they lost 80 acres,” he said. “Another smaller farmer who we helped establish, himself and his kids, they put in 10 acres and they lost 8 acres of their crop.”
Unable to sell the onions and unwilling to pay to harvest a worthless crop, the Enriquez family instead tilled their field multiple times, letting the ripped-up onions sit in the sun for a few days to “polarize” or kill off any lingering diseases, before tilling them again and folding them into the soil. Tearing up the year’s crop was a difficult decision, Enriquez Jr. said.
Even this year’s seeds, which would have grown next year’s crop, were decimated. The pom-pom flower atop each onion plant should be filled to bursting with hundreds of seed pods, each of which should have around four seeds, Enriquez Sr. said. Not only were most of the seed pods desiccated and empty, those that remained had two or three seeds.
Normally the flower head of this sweet onion would be nearly solid with light green seed pods where next year’s Enriquez crop is contained.
Without aid from the federal government, they expect to grow 2 or 3 acres in 2022, around 2% of their 2019 acreage.
“We’re hoping that since [Gov. Jay] Inslee declared the drought emergency, the USDA will consider helping some of the growers,” Enriquez Jr. said. “I am hopeful.”