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Family Tradition in Onion Fields

May 13, 1998

WALLA WALLA, Wash. (AP) _ In the next few weeks, Larry Arbini and members of his family will be out in the fields, just as his grandfather was 100 years ago, selecting onions for seeding next year’s crop.

They’ll be looking for the early-maturing sweet onions that John Arbini is credited with developing after he came to the United States from Italy in 1890.

Larry Arbini farms 40 acres of onions near Walla Walla, Wash. _ his grandfather’s strain that has gained renown for its mild flavor and lack of sharp bite.

So, before the harvest in June, Arbini will be looking for early-ripening onions with a slender neck, the right color and a globe shape about 3 1/2 inches in diameter.

That’s the best way to carry on the Walla Walla tradition, said Arbini, whose son Jason, 25, also is in the family business.

``It is important to improve the seed,″ he said. ``But if the grower doesn’t maintain (the advantage), you’re going to lose it again. We just have to be careful.″

Larry said his grandfather noticed some onions ripened earlier than others, so he started setting those aside to seed his future fields. After seven years of tinkering, he created what for many years was referred to as the early Arbini onion; a strain high in water and mild enough to ``eat like an apple.″

By developing weeks earlier than other varieties, it brought farmers better prices.

John’s six sons raised early Arbini onions on adjacent plots. Soon, other farmers got their hands on Arbini bulbs and started growing their own seed, according to published Walla Walla horticultural history.

Over time, each farmer developed strains with different characteristics. ``We all have a different idea of what they should look like,″ Larry Arbini said.

Despite some new blood in the industry, strong family traditions remain, said Jennifer Eriksen, manager of the Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Committee.

By the time Larry Arbini started farming full time in the late 1960s, the valley’s onions were becoming known as Walla Walla sweets. It wasn’t until 1995, however, that a federal marketing order designated the Walla Walla as a unique variety and established its growing region, along the U.S. highway from Waitsburg to Touchet.

In the 1960s, 15 acres of Walla Wallas was a big farm, Arbini said. Today, about 60 growers are farming 850 acres of Walla Walla sweets. On average, each acre yields 40,000 pounds.

The total acreage is about half what it was in the 1980s, Arbini said.

``We’ve all slowed down a little,″ he said. ``There is getting to be a lot of sweet onions around.″

In an effort to gain market share, the Walla Walla sweet marketing committee is asking the U.S. Agriculture Department for permission to set grades and standards on the region’s onions. At present, there is no method to ensure quality, Eriksen said.

``Sometimes, you can’t ask for a premium price if you don’t have quality standards,″ she said. ``Some of the retailers around the country want to be reassured that we’re giving them a high grade.″

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