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European onion harvest dramatically low

The estimates published by Statistics Netherlands in October still managed to surprise quite a few people. While quietly hoping yields wouldn’t come below 40 tonnes on average, the sector had to make do with an estimated 32 tonnes per hectare, barely half of the normal yields.

The onions that were harvested are small in size, excepting some batches. This is also clear from the 15 to 20 cents of difference between the majority of small-sized batches and the incidental large-sized batches that are reported. It is not for nothing that the stock exchange committees have set up an extra category of 0-30 per cent in size, in addition to the 30-60 per cent in size and more than 60 per cent in size, in consultation with trade. Quality is another issue. Plenty of batches show fusarium, or they show the MH treatment wasn’t effective, and green tips are already sprouting in some batches. A lot of batches already showed considerable wear and tear in October, because of the mediocre skin firmness. The latter often becomes clear when a batch is being sorted and packed.

A lot of field crop batches in the southwest of the country contain some triplets (smaller than 50 millimetres) with some medium-sized onions of 60 millimetres. It’s expected 1,300 to 1,500 hectares of seed onions have even been ploughed under in the Netherlands, because they simply didn’t have a high enough yield.

In Zeeland Flanders, which was hit hard by the dry weather, 1,000 hectares had to be ploughed under. Some growers who incurred expenses for grubbing up, storing and drying won’t surpass 5 to 10 tonnes per hectare, so that cost prices will be about one euro. In short, a dramatic season which shows the effects of water shortage for agriculture as a result of climate change. The call for plenty of fresh water is already becoming louder, but so is the call to pay plenty of attention to good drainage and water buffers to cope with an opposite situation: flooding.

In the meantime, export is continuing well, despite relatively high prices compared to previous seasons. Up till week 42, 340,000 tonnes had been exported, compared to 390,000 tonnes last season, when a record 1,150,000 tonnes were exported. It’s clear that this amount won’t be reached in the Netherlands this season. Indeed, with the current export there’s a good chance 500,000 tonnes will be reached before Christmas, with just 150,000-200,000 tonnes available for the second half of the season. With 26 export weeks, that means just 7,000 tonnes per week. If the export continues at a level of 15,000-20,000 tonnes per week, the onions will be completely out of stock by the beginning of March, and the Dutch harvest doesn’t start until late June. A well nigh unbelievable scenario, although it’s not entirely unrealistic.

With a nominal sorting capacity four times higher than the volume of 7,000 tonnes per week and a maximum capacity of six times as much as that, it means trade won’t have a lot of work, even though they have high costs regarding labour costs, debits and financing. Being unemployed for three to four months until the new harvest becomes available sounds improbable, but isn’t thought of as impossible. Perhaps the import onions from the Southern Hemisphere can compensate for trade and therefore work, but the question is whether those volumes will be large. However, other European countries are out of the question, according to the sum of authorised, European estimates that were published early in November. That sum shows that production in Europe is 1.5 million tonnes smaller than last season, amounting to 25-30 per cent less volume.The Dutch export within the EU confirms this, because the export figures to European destinations are currently significantly higher than last season.

In the period following Christmas it will become tense to find out how many onions will still be available, and whether they’ll be high enough quality to export. With the small sizes a lot of care has to be taken regarding wear and sprouting. Moreover, demand for larger sizes increases mostly in the second half of the season, and there are simply too few of these. Some people are wondering whether the market will gradually die out because the lower limit regarding trade volume is too low, or whether prices will rise to one euro. For now, however, it’s clear some growers will end up empty-handed, while others will make a profit. An unpleasant situation that shows how decisive the weather can be for the sector every day.

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