Peruvian sweet onions are the preferred choice for consumers during fall and winter.
Originally printed in the September 2023 issue of Produce Business.
Peruvian sweet onions are known for their mild and sweet flavor, which has found favor with consumers in combination with fall and winter dishes. A counter-seasonal crop, Peruvian onions complement the annual U.S. Vidalia onion harvest, and, despite some recent volume and acreage fluctuation, the outlook appears positive.
One of the largest family-owned and -operated producers of Vidalia onions, Glennville, GA-based Bland Farms has invested and built trusted relationships in Peru over the last two decades, and now counts on its own team of growers and operators in the country.
“No matter the time of year, sweet onions are guaranteed to be on almost everyone’s shopping list,” says Troy Bland, chief executive. “For retailers, it’s all about maintaining a high-quality and consistent supply. Bland Farms’ operational scale and decades of experience in Peru makes sure customers can meet the ‘sweet’ demand of having sweet onions available year-round.”
“No matter the time of year, sweet onions are guaranteed to be on almost everyone’s shopping list.”— Troy Bland, Bland Farms, Glennville, GA
“Each year, Bland Farms is leading with a consistent supply of our Premium Sweets, and the quality of our crop looks excellent,” adds director of sales Sloan Lott.
“Peruvian sweet onions are the preferred choice for consumers during fall and winter due to their exceptional taste and versatility in various recipes,” says John Shuman, president and chief executive of Reidsville, GA-based Shuman Farms. “They are perfect for salads, soups, stews, roasts and other cold-weather dishes, making them an essential ingredient in seasonal recipes.”
According to Shuman Farms’ proprietary, consumer consumption and purchase behavior research, the typical sweet onion consumer is 55 or older and living in a two-person household, with an annual income of between $50,000-$75,000. It also found the average consumer eats 1.6 pounds of sweet onions per year.
According to Bernardo Muñoz, director of the Trade Commission of Peru in New York, otherwise known as Prom Perú, up to 70% of Peru’s annual onion exports are destined for the U.S. market, although this total dropped to 66% in 2022.
Even so, he describes the U.S. as “very important” for Peruvian onion growers, as one of the country’s top export markets for the product (the other two being Colombia and Spain). Sweet white onions make up the lion’s share of these exports.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic was a challenge for Peru’s exporters, in common with most other countries, Muñoz says the situation has now normalized in availability and frequency of container shipments, while prices have also decreased significantly.
“Rather than decreasing during the COVID period, Peru increased its volume of agro-exports and positioned itself globally in many products,” he adds.
The Peruvian onion season typically starts each July and runs through to the following March, although peak volume lasts from September to January. The majority of this production is concentrated in Peru’s coastal region, running roughly between the cities of Ica and Arequipa.
Now, an estimated 13,338 acres (5,400 hectares) of onions are being produced, and Muñoz emphasizes there is plenty of room for expansion, calculating an additional 9,880 acres (4,000 hectares) are available for onion production.
“In Peru, we are below the equator line, so we have a tropical, but dry, climate,” explains Muñoz. “As a result of the crossing of two air currents — the El Niño and the Humboldt — we also do not have big fluctuations in temperature.”
Muñoz adds onion growers in coastal regions benefit from “optimal photosynthesis,” where the location “gives us a natural greenhouse, which results in the volumes we are able to achieve.”
“The region has one of the best climates, with little rainfall and plenty of sunshine,” agrees Troy Bland. “If you bite into a Peru onion and Vidalia onion, you can hardly tell the difference. They are the two sweetest onions that are produced in the world.
“Our agronomy staff has worked tirelessly over many years to cultivate this sweet onion in Peru, so we never miss a beat in getting the same wonderful, sweet onion to our retailers every day of the year.”
Currently, Bland Farms draws its volumes from roughly 1,630 acres in Peru, as well as sourcing from other farms in the country.
Once the U.S. Vidalia sweet onion season is over, Bland Farms immediately transitions to its Peru program. From there it moves into its Mexico program, as well as sourcing from domestic producers in Nevada and California.
“We continue to offer promotable volumes of sweet onions year-round.”
Keystone Fruit Marketing, a division of Progressive Produce, is also a player in the category, marketing its Peruvian Mayan Sweets branded onions across the U.S. and Canada.
“We are very pleased with the initial quality of this year’s harvest and are excited to kick off the Peruvian onion season,” says sweet onion commodity manager Matthew Gideon. “Although the weather has presented challenges due to El Niño conditions, resulting in smaller-sized early season onions, we expect normal size profiles and a return to average yields as the season progresses.”
“Although the weather has presented challenges due to El Niño conditions, resulting in smaller-sized early season onions, we expect normal size profiles and a return to average yields as the season progresses.”— Matthew Gideon, Keystone Fruit Marketing
Established in the early 1990s, Keystone was the first company to grow sweet onions in Peru, according to Gideon, and today remains one of the largest importers of Peruvian sweet onions into the U.S.
Making Promotions Matter
But who is buying sweet onions and why? According to Shuman Farms’ research, when sweet onions are in consumers’ market baskets, shoppers are more likely to purchase fresh beef, tomatoes, potatoes, squash, mushrooms and peppers.
“The top three dishes that sweet onions are found in are salads, ethnic dishes and beef dishes,” Shuman says.
He would encourage retailers to build cross-merchandising displays in the produce department as well as the meat department to take advantage of consumer buying habits and drive incremental sales.
“The top three dishes that sweet onions are found in are salads, ethnic dishes and beef dishes.”— John Shuman, Shuman Farms, Reidsville, GA
“During recent focus group research, we learned consumers have a very high opinion of sweet onions from Peru and use them in a variety of dishes during the fall and winter months,” he adds.
According to Troy Bland at Bland Farms, sustained shopper demand and increasing year-over-year sales for premium sweet onions anchor the category.
“Consumers look for sweet onions and take advantage of their versatility in the kitchen 12 months of the year, making them a must-have no matter the season,” he says.
In addition to standard display bins, Bland Farms provides retailers with seasonal merchandising programs for a variety of cross-promotions to drive incremental sales. Bland says Premium Sweet Onion packaging and display bins offer “more stopping power and inspiration to purchase.”
Bland Farms’ Premium Sweet Onions can be packed and merchandised in a variety of different options to maximize department sales: 40-pound shippers, and consumer packs in 2-, 3-, 5-, 6-and 10-pound bags. Organic Premium Sweets will also be in stock as the season continues.
The Georgia company is also active in terms of more direct promotions. For the 2023-24 season, Bland Farms is partnering with Atlanta, GA-based barbecue equipment manufacturer Big Green Egg for its Gameday Sweetness Promotion, which runs now through the Super Bowl in February 2024.
“We’ll have a national display contest in which a retailer can win a large Big Green Egg,” says Bland. “We’ll also be giving away Mini Eggs, thermometers and other great prizes for both retailers and consumers.”
During October, Bland Farms supports Breast Cancer Month with a full line of pink bags, boxes, PLUs and bins.
Recognizing the power of cross-merchandising, Keystone’s Gideon suggests cross-merchandising sweet onions with meat products such as burgers, sausages and steaks.
“This creates enticing opportunities for consumers, driving sales for sweet onions and meat products,” he says. “Similarly, cross-merchandising with tomatoes, peppers, salads, and squash in the produce department generates additional sales.”
Rather than engaging in direct marketing to consumers or retailers, Muñoz says Prom Peru focuses on trade exhibitions for promoting Peruvian onions, singling out the annual IFPA Global Produce & Floral Show and Phoenix Media’s own New York Produce Show. The organization also makes great play from Peru’s recent achievements in the gastronomic world with the country twice named Best Gastronomic Destination in South America by the World Travel Awards.
“Part of our strategy is a 360 approach, where we highlight all areas of the supply chain,” adds Muñoz.
The debate over domestically grown versus imported produce is one that has gained prominence over the past two decades, but Troy Bland says convenience has proven to be more significant than any potential conflict.
“Fortunately, consumer demand for year-round great quality sweet onions overshadows any focus on where they originate,” he believes. “For over 20 years, consumers have grown to love and expect the consistently sweet, outstanding-quality Peruvian sweet onions.”
For Shuman, the biggest headline that Peruvian sweet onions has generated has been its positive economic impact in the U.S. “Importing our sweet onions through the Port of Savannah allows us to maintain a full-time local workforce in southeast Georgia, providing American jobs 12 months of the year,” he says.
“Thanks to our Peruvian sweet onions program, we are able to retain the same employees from Vidalia season except for the H2A field labor. Peruvian onions allow us to maintain an experienced year-round workforce that we would otherwise be unable to do.”
“Anytime you’re putting product on boats and you’re shipping it for 10 days plus or minus, there are always concerns,” admits Keystone’s vice president of sales, Mike Blume. “To get them loaded and unloaded in a timely manner, that’s always challenging, but we’ve got companies that we’ve been working with for years and we seem to have been able to get through everything in a timely manner and make it all work.”