PHOTOS: Colorado onion farmers race to harvest onions before frost

SHAVANO VALLEY, Montrose County — Beyond cell service, nestled in the Western Slope mountains, at the end of a dirt road, farm workers raced the coming fall frost on a mid-October afternoon to pick yellow onions.

Onion farmers across Colorado knew they only had a few days, hours really, to get their crop topped, collected, bagged and stored before overnight temperatures dropped below freezing.

Onions can handle a little frost, but anything beyond that and a crop could be too damaged to harvest.

“It looks like Sunday night, Monday night, Tuesday night, Wednesday night it’s going to freeze, that’s why we’re on the hustle,” farmer John Harold said on Oct. 19 as his crew worked.

Harold, whose company Tuxedo Corn grows the popular Olathe Sweet brand sweet corn, was one of many producers on the Western Slope working to get yellow, white, and red onions out of the ground before that Sunday’s expected freeze.

Earlier in the month, days-long rain prevented workers from harvesting the onion fields. Some farmers hired helicopters to hover just above their fields with the intent to dry the ground so the workers could begin harvest.

“As a farmer, you can’t complain about moisture, but it sure did set us back and it’s what put us in the bind that we’re in now,” Harold said.

Colorado is one of the largest producers of onions by volume in the United States, in part due to the state’s ideal climate for growing and storing onions throughout the fall and winter months.

The National Onion Association says 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 a minimum, thereby reducing pesticide use and ensuring high-quality onions, according to Colorado State University.

Storage onions are generally harvested and shipped from September through March, with other specialty varieties available seasonally.

In Montrose County, Harold used multiple farm crews working alternating shifts day and night to get onions from the field into a sorting center, then into 50-pound bags and onto awaiting transport trucks.

This fall, Harold said he’s expecting to move 7 million to 8 million pounds of onions to buyers ready to fill orders ahead of the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

Most of the onions produced by Harold and his company are bound for restaurant suppliers who buy and ship millions of pounds of onions around the country. This year, even as water shortage issues loom over the agriculture industry in western Colorado, Harold said he’s beginning to see more seed suppliers move back to the Western Slope, which to him is a good sign that demand and production remain strong.

“We have good crops — everybody has,” he said. “Looks like good demand and good prices and we’re all excited about what we are doing, but we’re really nervous about the weather.”

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