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Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 8
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Wine buzz sustains local economy

This article was co-authored by Talia Rudee.

For more than 100 years, wheat has been a staple crop in the Walla Walla Valley.

The dry land and expanse of open spaces in the area are well-suited for grain-growing, and the region has gained a reputation for its wheat production. Indeed, one of the images commonly associated with Walla Walla is the rolling wheat fields.

Credit: Catie Bergman

In recent years, however, the introduction of grapes and the success of the wine industry has diversified Walla Walla agriculture. In contrast to wheat, which must be harvested and replanted every year, grapes are perennial; as long as proper care is taken, the same vines will yield fruit for many years. The long life of grapevines is only one factor in its recent success.

Walla Walla Community College performed a study in 2006, and again in 2011, on the local impact of the Walla Walla wine industry. Since the first Walla Walla winery, Leonetti Cellar, opened in 1978, more than 80 wineries have found the area to be fruitful for their land and their pockets.

The WWCC study shows that from 1997 to 2007, the “wine cluster”–vineyards, wineries, wine-tasting rooms, places that provide machinery and even lodging, stores and restaurants associated with wine––was responsible for an annual 25 percent of Walla Walla’s economic growth.

According to Whitman Professor Emeritus of Economics, Jim Shepherd, the positive effects of wine-cluster-growth in recent decades have been apparent in the city.

“In the 1980s, downtown was dead,” said Shepherd. “Now, places that were once empty storefronts are tasting-rooms. You see all these tourists walking around, visiting them all.”

The tourists that now populate downtown Walla Walla not only visit the tasting-rooms, but they also bring business to the hotels and restaurants that make up part of the wine cluster. It is obvious that the wine industry has brought plenty of tourism to the small town, but there are various opinions as to the reason this crop has done so well economically.

Dean and Sheri Derby own a vineyard and winery called Spring Valley about halfway between Walla Walla and Waitsburg. When they opened Spring Valley in 1993, there were only six other wineries in the area. The land where their vineyard is located was part of the expansive wheat farm that had belonged to Sheri’s family for over 100 years. When the Derbys noticed that the other few wineries were doing well, they decided to turn 127 acres of their extensive wheat fields into a vineyard.

“Wheat is a commodity crop––you can’t say ‘this wheat makes good pasta.’ Grapes are a specialty crop,” said Dean Derby.

Shepherd agrees with Derby’s opinion that wine is more vendible than grain.

“The money is really in the winery, in a good name and marketing your wine,” Shepherd said.

However, Derby would argue that the wine speaks for itself.

Credit: Catie Bergman

“Tourism has increased primarily because of the premium wines being produced here,” he said. “The tasting-rooms have just made it more convenient.”

In order to establish a winery in the area, however, one must be able to pay for water rights. Vineyards must be irrigated, but there is not enough water in the area to be shared freely. This necessity immediately sets up an economic barrier for aspiring vintners. 

“Water is becoming scarcer and scarcer,” said Shepherd. “If there isn’t enough water to go around, someone isn’t going to get it.”

Additionally, harvesting grapes is very labor intensive. And according to Derby, there is not enough local labor to fill the demand, so workers are brought in. When asked if this introduction of more low income laborers affected economic stratification in Walla Walla, Derby explained the situation in the terms of capitalism.

“The key to all successful things is a free market,” said Derby. “If a crop is doing well, but you need more people, you import them. That’s the way things go in this country. There’s always social problems in that because they’re not local and don’t have the same values, but it’s needed. If the economy wants to stay stagnant, then we won’t bring people in.”

And so it goes for many labor-intensive crops all over the country. Not only is wine a source of discussion for its tourism benefits, but also for its possible effects on social class and economic status in the city. Whether or not the industry is seen as good or bad overall, it is agreed upon that it has not eclipsed the wheat industry.

Said Shepherd, “Wine gets a lot of attention, but I don’t think it’s displaced wheat culture.”

Like wheat, onions have been a defining crop of Walla Walla for over 100 years since the first onion seeds were introduced to the area; however, the quality of onions in Walla Walla have come a long way and now make Walla Walla sweet onions truly a specialty item.

Whitman College Admissions tries to show off Walla Walla’s exceptional onions by delivering an entire box of Walla Walla sweet onions to each newly admitted student who will be attending Whitman in the following academic year.

“In addition to being a nice welcome gift and gesture, it was a way to highlight Walla Walla and celebrate the famous sweet onion,” said Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Tony Cabasco. “People really enjoy receiving it, and our office receives many thank you notes each summer,” he said.

These onions are provided by Locati Farms, a local family farm that has worked hard to create these exceptional onions since the onion’s seed first came to the Walla Walla Valley in 1905.  But since then, the onions have come a long way.

Credit: Catie Bergman

“Back 25 years ago, onions were just onions, sweet onions never really had a category in the retail market place, and now, they are a category,” said Michael Locati of Locati Farms.

Locati Farms works hard to bring in innovative techniques that most onion farmers and packers do not use. This has developed an entirely new kind of onion.

Locati Farm was the first farm to integrate farming and packing rather than having the packers separate from the farmers. This ensures that the onions are packed in the ideal conditions to produce more sugars and the unique sweetness of the Walla Walla sweet onions.

There is a colossal amount of work that goes into growing and producing Walla Walla sweet onions in order to make these onions an economically viable commodity in today’s economy.

“I just don’t know where it’s going to go. It’s a tough business to be in. Economically, there’s a lot of money at risk,” Locati said.

The risk lies in the strenuous work and time put into these onions, as the farmers of the Walla Walla sweet onions do everything by hand. In contrast, other large farming corporations that provide for grocery stores may use pesticides to aid the onions in a quicker growing process and use machinery for packing. These practices provide onions that are much cheaper, and therefore more accessible, to many Americans.

Locati, however, still believes the Walla Walla sweet onion can persevere and succeed, with more going for it than other onions. People seem to still appreciate the unique, amazing taste of a Walla Walla sweet onion, and therefore still may choose them over a common yellow onion.

Andy Broda from Southern California has specifically sought out the sweet Walla Walla onions since 1970 when she was introduced to them by a co-worker from Seattle.

Credit: Catie Bergman

“I was impressed and hooked on them once I had some,” said Broda.  “I have Walla Wallas shipped to me every year since then.  Wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Broda even managed to convert her Vidalia onion loving sister and her husband from Southern Carolina to Walla Walla Sweets lovers.

“They tell others about them, and since they can’t get them in Southern Carolina, they just have to listen to my sister rave about the sweetness of them,” said Broda.

In contrast to the long-lasting onion, a few crops have left the Walla Walla Valley, initially putting strain on the economy.

Across from the current Walla Walla Farmer’s Co-Op used to be a cannery. They processed asparagus and spinach locally according to the Co-Op’s Agronomy manager, Stacy Beckman.

“It has taken a lot of that market away from us here . . . but we have been able to rebound from that and put in different crops that can fill that void,” said Beckman.

Beckman mentioned that other crops such as soybeans, safflower and many other types of beans have been helped sustain the market.

Walla Walla is capable of sustaining its economy through a diverse array of crops, so that even with small setbacks, the sweet onion has proven to be a large asset to the economy.  Ultimately, it is well worth the farmer’s, like Locati, labor and brain power that goes into constantly making the onion better.

Although tourism does seem to spike from wine in the Walla Walla valley, the onion has been known to hold its own, and is an ever-present defining characteristic of our town.

“You can talk to people across the state and they’ll travel to Walla Walla to pick up their bag of Walla Walla Sweet onions,” said Beckman.




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    PatrickApr 14, 2012 at 1:14 am

    Well-written and informative. It would be interesting to read a follow-up article on the issue of water scarcity. 🙂