Apr 1, 2019Grower-bred red onions expand Walla Walla brand
A 10-year effort by a dedicated grower has yielded an onion of a different color from the Walla Walla Valley.
This year, fourth-generation grower Michael J. Locati debuted Walla Walla onions that are light red – he’s calling it a rosé, like the wine. The pink exterior color continues with every layer inside the onion.
“It started probably sometime back in 2007-2008 when we were harvesting our regular sweet onions,” he said. “I noticed a few off-color pinkish ones, and over the years tried to get that darker and darker without sacrificing that sweet flavor that is attributed to a Walla.”
Walla Walla onions are sweet onions identified as a unique variety grown in the Walla Walla Valley of southeast Washington and northeast Oregon, according to the commodity’s federal marketing order.
Locati was a college student at the time he discovered the first off-color onion, and regarded the breeding as a “fun project” rather than a commercial effort. Onions take two years to produce seed, and for the first while he wasn’t sure if he had anything.
“Natural selection allows for a pigment to take dominance of the onion originally,” Locati said. “I just exploited that pigment through hand-selection of the ones that were darker. It’s just a little trial and error.”
Like many other tasks at a farm, breeding the new onion trait required persistence and optimism.
“You’ve just got to get positive, that’s the biggest thing in farming,” Locati said. “It’s easy to get negative when things go bad because Mother Nature is in control. You’ll have setbacks. I remember one year I had a bunch of seed picked out and I was ready to plant it. I was busy with work or had to go to a meeting or something and my dad ended up accidentally throwing away a year’s worth of work. Those things happen, though. You can’t dwell on them and get mad.”
A decade later, Locati has finished college, earning from Washington State University a bachelor’s degree in agriculture technology and production. He’s also taken the helm of the family farm and Locati Farms (established in 1905) has joined up with Pacific Agri Farms, a partnership with five other growers in the area.
Locati said the group had 500 acres of sweet onions in the Walla Valley. He declined to say how many acres were planted with the new rosé onion in 2018, but said they would double commercial production of the onions in the next year. The rosé Walla Walla onions will be packed under his family brand, Locati Farms, and will be available wholesale from Keystone Fruit Marketing and retail through the family website, www.locatifarms.com.
The onions are planted in September and harvested late June to early July. The first crop sold this fall seemed to generate some interest.
“Customers seem to be really drawn to it,” he said. “It just seems to add a little something different to it.”
There are a variety of other red onions on the market, and a growing number of sweet onion varieties have been developed. But Locati’s onion would be the first Walla Walla onion that’s red.
“It’s our niche within a niche,” Locati said.
— Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor