The current onion market: limited stocks from distant regions

Preparations for the coming onion import season are in full swing. We looked ahead to the coming season with Gerard Hoekman and Jan van der Lans. Gerard Hoekman of Mulder Onions from Kerkrade, the Netherlands, expects the first shipments in week 11. There are fewer fixed programmes because of the high prices this year. “I feel confident we’ll have plenty of product until late April,” he says. Jan van der Lans of Van der Lans International expected the first shipments from the Southern Hemisphere on 21 February this year, from South Africa.

Jan van der Lans: “We all have to remain alert”
“This season, we’ll be importing from the Koue Bokkeveld region in South Africa for the first time in about 12 years. The market is very special this season because of the considerable shortages in Europe caused by the extremely dry weather in the summer of 2018. Most retailers require additional volume for about six weeks compared to other years, so we’re expecting good sales opportunities for the South African onions. We’re working with a renowned and certified grower, who will supply onions to us until late March,” says Jan.

Jan with his daughter Bodin in Tasmania

Jan chooses to import from countries he’s familiar with. “We import yellow and red onions from New Zealand, we’ve done this for a long time. Over the years, you build a relationship of trust with your shipping agent, and you work together in good and bad times. We expect to unload the first shipment at Jonika’s in Oostdijk on 26 February. Besides, we also import from Tasmania and the mainland of Australia, this mostly concerns white onions. We’ve been doing so for 27 years now. During my visit to New Zealand and Tasmania in January, I saw that the onions are of very good quality in both countries. The varieties harvested first in particular are large, and peaks around sizes of 65-90 mm. We also have Egyptian red onions in our assortment every year, mostly from mid-May. This season, I also expect demand for yellow onions from Egypt. We work with the right growers there, because not everything is the right quality.” Jan also expects regular shipments of Chilean onions from late March, these are the Valenciana and Grano varieties. Jan confirms that no extra onions have been planted in the countries in the Southern Hemisphere, because the reports regarding the low yields in Europe reached them too late.

Tasmanian onion field

“The Dutch onions are currently the most expensive of Europe, that hasn’t always been the case either. The onion market has been much calmer as of early January, in part thanks to the loss of overseas export to West Africa. We’ve recently started noticing more demand for Dutch onions from Germany and other European countries. We mostly focus on the onion sales within Europe, and don’t actually do overseas export, just import. I expect demand for Dutch onions will recover in March. Considering New Zealand exporters want relatively high prices, European retailers will try to continue with Dutch and other European onions as long as possible.”

When we talk to Jan, the onion market is still calm. “Everyone now has high hopes. There’s a lot of speculation. Because of that, the market also attracts a lot of onions from other countries, such as China. We’re really getting offers for onions from all corners of the world,” he smiles.

“I expect more demand for overseas import onions from April. We took measures and started good programmes. I think it’s important sales remain constant and that the market doesn’t come to a standstill. People shouldn’t take too many risks. The current speculation could also take a wrong turn! A similar market situation appeals to all kinds of fortune hunters, and that could easily turn to chaos. We therefore all have to remain alert,” Jan concludes.

Gerard Hoekman: “I feel confident we’ll have plenty of product until late April”
When we met, the import season for onions hadn’t even started yet. “We’re now working hard to get all of the programmes drawn up,” says Gerard, manager of Mulder Onions. “We’ll receive the first shipments from New Zealand and South Africa in week 11. Supermarkets bought less, so there will be more day trading. This can be explained because price levels will be very high, and people prefer waiting until the products actually arrive in that case.”

“Considering the current situation in Europe, more import products will be needed. That could become a problem, because all of those products have to come from somewhere. After all, they didn’t grow more in the Southern Hemisphere. That’s why prices are so high at the moment. Expected volumes will probably be too low to meet demand because of that as well.”

To fill any gaps, they are therefore also looking at more countries than normally. “One example is South Africa. This country hasn’t been a supplier for ten to fifteen years now. Quality is still uncertain, but I visited the growers, and it’s looking well. However, it should be noted that we won’t be able to get large volumes from there. Another option is Argentina. They haven’t been on the Dutch market for ten to fifteen years either. But Argentina is currently exporting a lot to Brazil. If Brazil pays the right price, Argentina won’t export much to Europe.”

“That would actually be it. Some people talk of Egypt as well, but Egypt can’t supply the right quality, because they don’t grow the right varieties. Some stocks from China arrived as well, but that’s all old harvest, and these onions are all too large for our market.”

Gerard can currently still meet demand, and he’s carefully optimistic about how things will continue to go. “There’s still some product on the market, in any case. British, French, German and Austrian onions are still available. You can notice demand from the Netherlands will be shifting, but that’s normal for the time of year. We’ll have to see how far we can get. I don’t expect we’ll have plenty of product until the end of the season, but I feel confident we’ll have plenty until late April,” Gerard says.

For now, no additional measures will be taken for the coming season, in any case. “We’ll just have to wait and see. We had extreme weather circumstances. Hopefully it’ll be normal again next year,” Gerard concludes.


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