Arbini Farms

Arbini Farms

Arbini Farms has come full circle. What started a century ago as a small, so-called truck garden, and then grew into a wholesale supplier of the famed Walla Walla sweet onions, is back to selling its crop straight to the public. And Larry Arbini wouldn’t have it any other way. “We’ve opted to do it all ourselves,” he says. “And you know what? We do all right.”

The history of Arbini Farms is closely interlocked with that of the Walla Walla sweet onion, named after the valley in Eastern Washington, just north of the Oregon border. In the late 1800s, a French soldier, Pete Pieri, was stationed on the island of Corsica, according to the book, The Horticultural History of Walla Walla County, by Joe Locati. Though a French island, and the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte, Corsicans were largely of Italian heritage, and so were their vegetables. Pieri had learned that the Walla Walla Valley was an excellent place to farm, and upon his discharge from the military, he secured some Italian onion seed prevalent on Corsica and set out for the U.S. to make his fortune.

The seed Pieri planted west of Walla Walla did indeed flourish in the valley soils. He soon learned that if seeded in early September, the onion would not only winter over, but would produce a bulb of superior size, as much as 2 pounds. Not only that, but the eating quality was superior. Walla Walla sweets are mild because they have a high water content, reducing the relative amount of sulphur, which can make for a hot taste. Yet another advantage to the variety was that because it was seeded in the fall, it came in much earlier than the spring-seeded onions. It was a quality that Larry Arbini’s grandfather would maximize, and it was he who would be credited as the developer of the early Walla Walla sweet, according to Locati.

Cinderella Story

One thing that Larry Arbini has learned in switching from wholesale growing to retail is that it’s crucial to be sensitive to consumers’ desires. For example, he used to grow spinach for canning. But in a story familiar to many who grow vegetables for freezing, canning or drying, that business declined through the years, largely because of cheap labor available to foreign competition. However, there is another use for spinach that Arbini had never considered — juice. That’s right, at least in Japan, spinach juice is popular, and Arbini raised 400 tons last year for squeezing.

But an even better example of Arbini’s attempts to engage consumers is in raising pumpkins. He also initially started producing pumpkins for juice, also for the Japanese market. Last year, he farmed 10 acres of pumpkins, enough to produce 170 tons of the orange fruit. Arbini grows the Cinderella pumpkin variety, so-named because it is the one that the poor maiden Cinderella’s fairy godmother turned into a coach. Arbini soon found that the Cinderella variety’s squatty shape and deeply ribbed reddish-orange shell was extraordinarily attractive to consumers. “People driving by would stop, so (in ensuing years) I made sure to plant them along the road,” he says. “I’ve sold an awful lot of them roadside.”

Italian Heritage

In 1890, Giovanni Arbini also set sail for the U.S. Leaving his native Italy, and, like Pieri, he settled in the Walla Walla Valley to farm. He was one of many Italian onion growers. But unlike his fellow growers, he was not satisfied with the seed brought over by Pieri. In 1923, Arbini noticed that some of the bulbs would mature more quickly than others. He would immediately remove these bulbs, which many of the other growers didn’t favor because they produced smaller plants. “But though the plants were smaller,” says his grandson, “the bulbs were just as large. They were an ideal globe shape, and there were no doubles.”

By 1925, the premium Walla Walla sweet — which matured in late June, hitting markets well before the other Italian sweets that were harvested in mid-July — was well-established. It would not get the Walla Walla sweet moniker until the 1960s, however. At the time, the variety was known as the “early Arbini strain,” according to Locati, which caused a certain amount of consternation among other growers because Arbini allegedly wouldn’t share any of his seed.
By the late 1920s, however, the early Arbini strain was being planted by growers around the valley. Giovanni Arbini then passed his onion-growing skills onto his sons Anthony, Frank, James, Reynold, Carl, and Joseph. Anthony’s son, Larry, started farming in 1966. “We had 12 acres of onions,” he says, “and we were considered a big grower.”

Back To The Future

Through the years, Larry gradually grew the business, reaching a peak of 60 acres in the early 1990s. The packingsheds were looking for volume, and Larry was intent on providing it. However, the packingsheds were making more and more demands as the years went by, says Arbini. It got so bad that the price they charged for packing a sack of onions more than doubled almost overnight, from $3 to $7. “And if there was a problem,” says Arbini, “they were your onions.”

Fed up, he and his son Andrew decided to essentially return to their roots. They’re back to farming just 6 acres of onions, as well as a few other specialty crops (See Cinderella Story). Much like the old truck garden days, they haul loads of onions into the cities, selling onions at farmers’ markets in the small cities in Washington and Oregon, such as Yakima, Pasco, and Pendleton. They also sell onions to restaurants in the area.

One big difference from the old days, however, is that Arbini Farms sells a lot of onions on the Internet. It sells directly to the public its their Web site, direct marketing onions in 10- to 40-pound gift boxes. The price averages about $2 per pound, but because the cost of shipping is included, the amount varies quite a bit depending on where the onions are shipped. Arbini says he ships a surprising amount of Walla Walla sweets, which earlier this year were named Washington’s official state vegetable, to the East Coast. “It’s a win-win situation,” says Arbini. “We get a good price, and they’re getting really quality stuff — we guarantee them 100%.”

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