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Nothing like a sweet, sweet onion from Walla Walla

Jose Gasca, working in an onion field in Touchet, Washington, lifts and trims the roots and stalks of Walla Walla sweet onions, Wednesday, June 28, 2017. Only a handful of farmers still raise the special onions named after the largest town of the region. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Farm workers stop for a break in an onion field in Touchet, Washington, Tuesday, June 28, 2017. Mostly Hispanic workers manually lift and trim thousands of pounds of the popular seasonal onions every day. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Many passersby mistake sweet onion stalks for corn stalks but these future Walla Walla sweets will grow until they’re ready, at which point the stalks will wilt and lie over on the ground. This field is in Touchet, Washington. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Jose Gasca, working in an onion field in Touchet, Washington, lifts and trims the roots and stalks of Walla Walla sweet onions, Wednesday, June 28, 2017. Only a handful of farmers still raise the special onions named after the largest town of the region. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
A farm worker squints against the blowing dust and dumps a box of sweet onions into a bin that will be hauled to a local packing shed, Wednesday, June 28, 2017. The onions are first undercut by a tractor-drawn implement, then workers lift, trim and load them onto trucks. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Farm workers lift and trim Walla Walla sweet onions on the rolling hills of Touchet, Washington, Wednesday, June 28, 2017. Walla Walla sweet onions are protected as a unique product that are only grown in the Walla Walla area. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Farmer Michael J. Locati looks at the harvest, loaded into a bin which will haul his sweet onions to the packing shed, Wednesday, June 28, 2017 in Touchet, Washington. Locati is from one of several Italian families that have raised the Walla Walla sweets. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sweet onions appear ready to harvest, Wednesday, June 28, 2017, in a field in Touchet, Washington. When the sweet onions are ready, the stalks lie over on the ground. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Farmer Michael Locati cuts open a jumbo sweet onion in a field in Touchet, Washington, Wednesday, June 28, 2017. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
After arriving from the field and being dried, onions are sorted for size and trained eyes look for defects, such as nicks made during harvest. The Walla Walla River Packing Company packs most of the sweet onions from Walla Walla onion fields. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Walla Walla sweet onions are weighed and scrubbed at an automated part of the packing line at Walla Walla River Packing Company, Tuesday, June 27, 2017. The local sweet onions have been a signature crop for this corner of Washington state, but production and visibility is down from its height many years ago. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Harry Hamada stands in front of a new automated onion packing machine which will soon start up at Walla Walla River Packing Company, which he manages to pack the sweet onions grown by his family and a few others. The Hamada family came to the Walla Walla region impoverished after World War II internment, growing their role in the onion business slowly after starting as field workers. The automation will help combat the rising costs of labor in the farm industry. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Junior Lozano, left, and Diego Lara pack 40 lb. cartons of sweet onions at the Walla Walla River Packing Company, Tuesday, June 27, 2017. Once the signature product of the Walla Walla region, sweet onion production is down from its height 20-30 years ago. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
A partially automated packing line produces several thousand bags of Walla Walla sweet onions at the Walla Walla River Packing Company, Tuesday, June 27, 2017. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Workers at the Walla Walla River Packing Company load fresh Walla Walla sweet onions onto a refrigerated truck at their packing plant near Walla Walla, Tuesday, June 27, 2017. The plant processes the majority of sweet onions in the region. When they arrive from the field, they are put in the drying shed to dry out the stems to help preserve them for their trip to market. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
On the side streets of Walla Walla, signs and stands pop up as soon as the sweet onions start coming in from the fields, shown Wednesday, June 28, 2017. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Refrigerator trucks back up to loading docks and load up to take Walla Walla sweet onions to market, Tuesday, June 27, 2017, at the Walla Walla River Packing and Storage facility. Manager and partner Harry Hamada says farmers realized many years ago that they needed to be involved in packing their product to break even, so Hamada’s family and other farmers partnered in the packing end of the business. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
The iconic and historic Marcus Whitman Hotel, named after an area pioneer, has benefited by the growing wine tourism in the Southeast Washington town of Walla Walla, shown Tuesday, June 27, 2017. Wine and tourism overshadow the area’s eponymous product, sweet onions. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
On banners hung around downtown Walla Walla, Washington, the graphics reference the towns icons, including wine and sweet onions, shown Wednesday, June 28, 2017. Sweet onion production is decreased from its height a few decades ago. These days, wineries draw many more people to the region. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
The historic downtown and the growing winery business are drawing wine tourism to the southeast Washington town of Walla Walla, shown Tuesday, June 27, 2017. Wine and tourism overshadow the area’s eponymous product, sweet onions. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
The historic downtown and the growing winery business are drawing wine tourism to the Southeast Washington town of Walla Walla, shown Tuesday, June 27, 2017. Wine and tourism overshadow the area’s eponymous product, sweet onions. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sole promotion representative Kathy Fry-Trommald of the Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Committee takes a break from packing up her office in the Walla Walla Chamber of Commerce building, Wednesday, June 28, 2017. She is retiring after 17 years as executive director of the Walla Walla sweet onion industry association. Her duties are being handed over to a professional management group that promotes several products. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Kathy Fry-Trommald points out the many onion-related events she has planned through her 17 years as the promoter of sweet onions from Walla Walla, shown Wednesday, June 28, 2017, at her office in the Walla Walla Chamber of Commerce building. But she was dismantling her office in preparation for retiring and her duties, such as promoting the Walla Walla onions, going to food trade shows and organizing the onion festival in town, are being handed over to a professional organization that will handle many different products. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
A few leftover promotional materials are found in the office of sweet onion promoter Kathy Fry-Trommald in the Walla Walla Chamber of Commerce office, Wednesday, June 28, 2017. For decades, the promotion effort has been funded by an assessment on the growers of the eponymous product of the region. Fry-Trommald is retiring and fewer growers are available to pay into the promotion effort. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
At a rural corner in farm country, a large winery tasting room and signs pointing to other wineries vie for visitors’ attention, Tuesday, June 27, 2017. The countryside around Walla Walla, Washington is dotted with dozens of wineries, attracting oenophiles and vacationers to the region for tasting and shopping. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
With a basket of onions nearby, Kathy Fry-Trommald looks up information for a reporter, information gathered during her 17 years as the promoter of sweet onions from Walla Walla, shown Wednesday, June 28, 2017 at her office in the Walla Walla Chamber of Commerce building. But she was dismantling her office in preparation for retiring and her duties, including attending food trade shows and organizing the onion festival in town, are being handed over to a professional organization that will handle many different products. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Before Walla Walla became known for wine, it was famous for something else: “Home of the onion so sweet you can eat it like an apple.”

That line, a mainstay of marketing materials for the Walla Walla Sweet onion, graces the official promotional website for what is the official state vegetable.

Though true, it’s a bit exaggerated: While the onion is enjoyed raw, most people put thick slices on burgers or in salads rather than munching on the whole globe.

Michael J. Locati, a fourth-generation farmer descended from the Italian immigrants who first raised the onion in Walla Walla, is an exception.

“Every field, I usually try to eat an onion,” he said.

Locati, 27, has taken over the region’s largest onion-producing farm from his uncle, Michael F. Locati. He studied agricultural technology and business management at Washington State University and worked off the farm a few years before returning.

Onion farmers have dealt with the same pressure facing growers across Washington: get big or get out. Locati is part of a consortium that owns its own packing shed, and farms about 350 of the region’s roughly 500 acres, making the consortium by far the largest grower of Walla Walla Sweets.

Still, sweet onions remain a do-it-yourself heirloom crop in most ways. Farmers save their own seeds, and plants have been selected over generations of onions for desired traits: large globes, sweet flavor and winter hardiness.

Much of what happens in the fields is the result of tinkering by individual farmers.

“There’s no onion like this,” Locati said.

Sweet start

The onion’s Italian roots are still visible in the names of the region’s growers, many of whom are third- or fourth-generation descendants of the gardeners who bred the first Walla Walla Sweets. The Locatis are the biggest, but other growers include the Arbinis and Castoldis.

The official origin story for the onion is partially the result of educated guesswork undertaken by Joe J. Locati, a former district horticultural inspector and a descendant of the first Locati generation to grow the vegetable. Interviewing his uncle, he wrote down the family’s story about the onion’s origin in a 1976 essay, preserved in the Penrose Library archives at Whitman College.

The genesis of the Sweets can be traced to a Frenchman named Peter Pieri. He was a soldier stationed on the island of Corsica in the late 1800s with plans to move to Walla Walla. He’d heard the small town was good for gardening. He brought the onion seed prevalent in Corsica with him, and other Italian gardeners in the valley started growing it.

As Joe Locati recounts, the onion originally was planted for harvest in the fall, but not every onion sold, and farmers let them winter over.

“It was discovered, in this manner, that they were winter hardy,” he wrote.

Early accounts sometimes referred to the onion as a French variety brought to Walla Walla by an Italian immigrant. Joe Locati points out the irony of that account, since his research suggests the opposite: Pieri was a Frenchman, and the onion’s origin in Corsica made it Italian by heritage, if not by geopolitical boundaries.

A second strain of the onion came over with Giovanni Arbini, who migrated to Walla Walla from his native Italy around 1890. He did much of the early work refining the onion and selected varieties that matured in early June, weeks ahead of the usual July harvest.

Italian gardeners planted small fields of vegetables, with the sweet onion leading the way for the cottage industry.

“That variety, more than any other commodity, was responsible for the continuance and survival of the truck garden industry for more than 70 years,” Joe Locati wrote.

Extending harvest

The original Walla Walla Sweet, planted in September, stays underground during the winter and begins to put up stalks in the spring. They’re ready for harvest when the green stalks of the plant start to fall over, Locati said, typically in early June.

The problem? That overwinter onion harvest usually lasts only a few weeks, ending sometime in July. That makes it a difficult crop for farmers to market.

“Costco’s not going to buy onions if you’re only two weeks,” Locati said.

To extend their season, Walla Walla onion farmers use transplanted and spring-seeded onions.

Sarah McClure and her husband, Dan, grow about 28 acres of organic sweet onions and sell to natural markets and grocery stores. Every year, they ship seeds to Arizona over the winter and get back small plants that look like salad onions in March. The onions arrive back at the farm in small bundles and are re-planted. The re-planted onions will be available when the winter sweets stop producing.

Many farmers, including Locati, also plant spring sweets in March to harvest at the end of the season. That keeps growers in business until August.

The hope is to get the first crops out of the ground in time to hit stores by the Fourth of July.

“If we miss that July Fourth market and we don’t have onions available then, it’s really hard to catch up because everyone wants a big slab of sweet onions on their burgers on the Fourth of July,” McClure said.

Location matters

The onion’s characteristic sweetness is related to its water and sugar content, as well as the soil it’s grown in. Sweets have a higher water content, making them unsuitable for long storage. They’re also more sugary.

Most importantly, they have lower levels of pyruvic acid, the sulfur-containing compound that gives onions their distinctive pungency. Sweet onion varieties tend to have concentrations below 5 percent, while regular yellow onions are typically above 10 percent.

The Walla Walla Valley’s low-sulfur soils help give the onion its distinct sweet flavor. Farmers maintain that if you took the seed outside of Walla Walla and planted it in, say, a Spokane garden, the resulting onion wouldn’t be a true Walla Walla Sweet.

In 1995, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a federal marketing order giving the Walla Walla Sweet region-protected status. An onion must be grown in defined boundaries within Walla Walla County and its southern neighbor, Umatilla County in Oregon, to be marketed as a Walla Walla Sweet.

There’s no well-funded crop research center in Washington for sweet onions. Instead, most agricultural research focuses on storage varieties of onions grown in the Columbia Basin, said Tim Waters, a regional vegetable specialist with Washington State University based in Pasco.

The state’s onion crop covers some 24,000 acres, making Sweets just over 2 percent of the state’s harvest, at 523 acres.

“It’s quite small, but in terms of marketing they’ve got the niche,” Waters said.

Perhaps no one is more passionate about the Walla Walla Sweet than Kathy Fry-Trommald, the now-retired executive director of the Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Committee. Before leaving the post in June, Fry-Trommald spent 16 years traveling the country to promote the signature Washington onion, which was grown on 1,400 acres in its heyday.

There was a time when Walla Walla Sweets were the only sweet onion available west of the Mississippi, she said. Before produce was a global business, Vidalia onions grown in Georgia were available on the east coast and Walla Walla Sweets dominated the rest of the country. It wasn’t economical to ship across the country.

That changed in the early 2000s, when grocery stores started demanding a year-round sweet onion, she said. Shipping produce around the world got cheaper, and Vidalias, which are available earlier in the season, started appearing in the Northwest.

It’s not possible to grow a year-round sweet onion in any one part of the U.S., so new varieties started springing up: the Maui in Hawaii, the Imperial Valley Sweet in California and the Sweetie Sweet in Nevada.

“We don’t have our window anymore like we used to. Walla Walla Sweets used to have a few weeks in the summer where we didn’t have a lot of competition, but now it seems like every state in the country has a sweet onion they put out,” said Paul Castoldi, a third-generation Walla Walla Sweet farmer.

Fry-Trommald said those onions, many of which were developed by university crop research centers, just aren’t as good as a true Walla Walla Sweet. Few things make her as angry as imposter onions, she said.

“People will take any old onion and put it in a Walla Walla bag,” she said, a practice illegal under the federal marketing order. She recalled seeing a sign in a Whole Foods store recently advertising “LOCAL Pennsylvania Organic Walla Walla Sweet Onions,” a label so nonsensical that Fry-Trommold simply shook her head.

The increased availability of other types of onions has made life harder for growers. It’s one factor behind the onion’s declining acreage, which has hovered around 500 acres for the past few seasons. The other reasons are common across farms all over Washington: younger generations who don’t want to take over the family business and increased costs of labor.

“A lot of young people got out of it because of the money. It’s too volatile now, too up and down to rely on the income,” Castoldi said. His farm is one of the exceptions: He’s working the land with his brother, Bob, and his nephew, Nathan, who’s in his 30s and planning to take over.

While sweets were once the mainstay of Italian immigrants’ gardens, today the crop is typically one piece of a diversified business. Like many crops, onions are rotated to preserve soil nutrients. The Castoldis, McClures and Locatis all grow other crops: alfalfa, pea and corn seed, asparagus and other vegetables.

Locati knows he’s one of a few people his age taking over the onion business, but he’s eager to keep the family tradition alive.

“You survive this long, you can’t fail now. It’d be embarrassing.”