MONTROSE COUNTY — The warm late October sunshine brought good fortune to farmers working long hours to harvest Colorado’s last major row crop of the year with a deadline to make red, yellow and white onions available for Thanksgiving recipes and Christmas dinner tables across the country.
Colorado is one of the largest producers of onions by volume in the U.S., due in part to state’s ideal climate for growing and storing the kitchen staple throughout the fall and winter months.
In Montrose County, the threat of fall freezing temperatures, combined with the deadline for foreign labor to return to Mexico, has increased the push to turn hundreds of acres of onions into a bagged commodity, ready for transport to markets across Colorado and the United States.
“The onions are doing very well this year, we’re behind getting them in, but the good Lord has given us a big window to finish up without problems. We’re all pleased that we are getting this kind of October,” said John Harold, who with his son, David, is one of about six large onion producers on the Western Slope.
This time last year, Harold said his workers were “balls to the walls,” with only hours to spare between 7 million and 8 million pounds of onions harvested and multiple days of hard freeze.
Onions can handle a little frost, but much more beyond that and the crop could be too damaged to harvest.
Harold, whose company Tuxedo Corn grows the popular Olathe Sweet brand sweet corn, this year expects to move 8.5 million pounds of onions from 200 acres of soil into bags and storage facilities, which works out to about 42,500 pounds per acre.
Onions are usually planted beginning in late March through mid-April and harvested beginning in late September and into October.
“It’s been a long season, but it needed to be because we had a late spring,” Harold said.
ABOVE: Dozens of onions are seen in a reflection on the glasses of a worker in an onion field near Falcon Road near Olathe. MIDDLE: Workers sort rocks from onions as they are harvested from a field. BELOW: Farmer John Harold watches as freshly harvested red onions are bagged at a sorting facility on Oct. 16.
According to the National Onion Association, farmers in the United States plant approximately 125,000 acres of onions each year and produce about 6.75 billion pounds of onions annually. Colorado’s higher altitude and colder winter months keep insect and plant diseases at bay, thereby reducing pesticide use and ensuring high-quality onions, according to Colorado State University.
This year David Harold installed miles of drip irrigation tubing in some onion fields as a way to use water more efficiently. The drip irrigation system was imported from overseas and is designed to put each water drop directly onto the seedling as it matures into a bulb onion plant. As the seeds began to sprout in early May, David was out on his hands and knees daily to make sure the fragile onion seedlings were growing as they should.
David said the fields with drip irrigation didn’t perform as well as he would have liked, but added he is open to the idea of trying again to see whether drip irrigation can be incorporated in the operation long term. Of course, adding anything into the growing process only cuts into the already thin profit margins farmers like the Harolds face on an annual basis.
Back under the warm fall sunshine, workers harvest by either bagging the onions into retired 50-pound burlap coffee bags or by using a large mechanical harvester that is pulled behind a tractor. The harvester uses a conveyor system to lift the onions from the soil and into a truck. Workers on top of the machine work to pull rocks from getting into the onion stream.
Every so often rocks will jam inside the machine bringing production to a halt. Sometimes the stoppage is for five minutes, other times, these breakdowns can last for hours. Time is a commodity the Harolds don’t have much of as all their workers from Mexico are days away from returning home.
Once the truck is full, the onions are then shipped to Harold’s sorting shed.
“It’s going to be a tight squeeze to get it all done before the labor heads back to Mexico,” John Harold said. “Hopefully we’ll finish up around (October) 28, 29, then they have 10 days to get home. After the 31st they can’t work anymore.”
Just as quickly as they are harvested, pallets of 50-pound bags are loaded onto trucks for shipment across the country. The Harolds will keep about 7 million pounds in their storage facility to be shipped throughout the winter. Colorado storage onions are generally harvested and shipped from September through March, with other specialty varieties available seasonally.
David Harold said the company will work through the storage of onions until about March, then the whole process will start again.
Most onions produced by the Harolds are bound for restaurant suppliers who buy and ship millions of pounds of onions around the country. But many they grow will likely end up in holiday recipes on dinner tables across the United States.
Story and photography by William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun. Design by Danika Worthington.