Peeling Back The Reasons Behind The Onion Shortage

Apr 14, 2019
Originally published on April 14, 2019 11:26 am
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SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

President Trump's recent threat to close the border with Mexico had some Americans panicky about how that would affect our avocado supply. Now there's a new threat to your produce draw - an onion shortage.

Shay Myers grows onions in Idaho and Oregon. And we reached him in Parma, Idaho, in his office overlooking the production floor of Froerer Farms, where he's the general manager. Where he is in the northwest, the harvest was pretty good. But a cold wet winter in the southwest affected U.S. onions, and bad weather in Mexico and Europe reduced imports from abroad.

SHAY MYERS: The consumption in the United States and the world consumption has been such that our supplies, our stocks on hand, are some of the lowest that we've had in a decade. Couple that with the delays because of the cold weather in the southern United States, and we're taking what was already at a somewhat challenging supply situation and trying to spread it out over even more time.

PFEIFFER: Then does that mean that we are going to find onions more expensive? Or will we actually have a hard time finding any of them?

MYERS: You won't have any supply challenges or - you know, when you go to the grocery store, you're going to get everything you want. And surprisingly, you probably won't even notice much of a price difference. An onion is one of the most marked-up produce items in the retail department, usually between 800 and 1,000 percent.

In most of the commodity markets, we're working on a 4 to 8 percent margin most of the time. So you know, when you're selling something to a retailer and they're able to mark it up, you know, 800 percent, it gives you kind of an idea of how little of the produce dollar goes back to the farmer.

PFEIFFER: By the way, you mentioned consumption. Are Americans and also Europeans eating more onions than ever before?

MYERS: Fortunately, they are. Yeah, the consumption is up to almost 22 pounds per capita in the United States per year. Part of it is the demographics. As we have more groups of people that naturally and culturally consume more onions, we see that happen across the board.

PFEIFFER: Are you primarily talking about South and Central Americans?

MYERS: South and Central Americans and even those that are coming from Asia are also higher consumers of onions than we are here in the United States generally.

PFEIFFER: That's interesting. You're a third-generation farmer, I believe.

MYERS: I am, yes.

PFEIFFER: How has onion farming changed over the years as your family has been doing this?

MYERS: You know, we started in the '50s. I think the biggest thing from the '50s to today - I mean, technology - we all know technology is impacting every aspect of our lives, so that's kind of a given. I think the real thing to consider is scale. Our operation, our family farm, is going to grow enough onions to feed roughly 7 - maybe 8 million people. And 50 years ago, that would not have been even one one-hundredth of that volume.

PFEIFFER: As you've mentioned, shoppers may not even notice this onion shortage. But how likely is it to remedy itself in terms of you as a grower? Is the onion supply going to correct itself? Will that shortage be fixed in the near future?

MYERS: Yeah. So we're only looking about 60, tops 120 days. By the time the northwest starts harvesting again at volume in September and October of this year, we will have enough supply on hand to really overcome any of the shortages - assuming that we don't have, you know, more curveballs thrown at us from Mother Nature.

PFEIFFER: Shay Myers is general manager of Froerer Farms in Idaho and Oregon. Shay, thanks very much for talking with us.

MYERS: Yeah. Thanks so much. Appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.