The Walla Walla sweet onion is a symbol of state and city pride. In 1990, the onion was designated Washington’s state vegetable, and Walla Walla celebrates its famed onion with a festival each July.
For farmers Dan and Sarah McClure, owners of Walla Walla Organics, the edible bulb is both a source of pride and income.
“It’s a special sweet onion from a special place, and part of what we like to do is cross promote the Valley,” said Sarah. “You have the Walla Walla wines, you have the Walla Walla Valley, you have the Walla Walla sweet onion.”
The McClures differentiate themselves further as the only farm currently growing sweet onions organically in the Valley, essentially making them the only growers of organic genuine Walla Walla sweets in the world. This means they grow all their own seeds of the three different varieties they grow, which are planted three times a year — Super Early, Early French, and Garby, which was developed by a local farmer. They all taste the same, according to Sarah, and have clearly defined harvest times.
They plant an overwinter crop in September and send seeds for a spring planting to Arizona in November, where they are grown into seedlings in the milder climate and then transplanted by hand back in Walla Walla in April. Because the onions are so delicate — they are 90 percent water — they are both hand-planted and hand-harvested, as well as hand-weeded by a group of local women.
The sweet onion crop is on a four-year rotation, making the other organic vegetables they grow and sell essential to the health of the onion. The McClures grow squash after the onions, then spinach, both of which are processed into organic purees for soups, smoothies and pie filling. The final rotations are beans, including small red merlot, black and flageolet, and then a cover crop before the soil is ready again for the onions.
The McClures, who both grew up farming, owned a John Deer dealership in town for 30 years before turning to farming, although it was always in the back of Dan’s mind. The couple enjoys farming, especially organically, because of the problem-solving involved.
“The challenge is what makes it interesting,” said Sarah. “We don’t do the same thing every year.”
Find their onions and dry beans at Harvest Foods, Welcome Table and Frog Hollow farm stands, Kontos Cellars and Blue Mountain Station.