Onions were the first major commercial vegetable crop to be grown in Texas. In 1898 T. C. Nye and George Copp grew Bermuda onions near Cotulla and sold some to the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, market. This was possibly the first successful attempt at Bermuda onion growing in the country, and it ushered in an era of profit and speculation. Nye was reported to have netted $1,000 an acre on his crops, a figure unheard of among cotton planters. By 1901 ranchers and speculators were breaking up large tracts of land in the area just northwest of Laredo to sell to new settlers. Around this time Texas became the leading producer of early-season onions in the United States. Fortunes were made during the first few years, but prior to World War I low prices forced many growers out of the market. Texas onion growers had little luck in solving the problem of fluctuating prices, but by 1917 a boom hit the Texas onion market largely because of the World War I food shortages in Europe. Prices were the highest on record, and annual profits of $40,000 or more were not uncommon. But by the early 1920s the industry was back in a slump due to falling prices and overproduction. The major difficulty of the earliest growers was transportation. Their produce was hauled overland by wagon to the nearest railhead, and much was often lost to spoilage on the journey. Rail connections in the area improved rapidly, however, and the primary vegetable-growing regions of Texas gained population in the early decades of the twentieth century. Many of the new immigrants were Mexicans attracted by higher wages than they could get at home.
The early spring crop of onions in Texas is grown primarily in the irrigated areas of South Texas such as the lower Rio Grande valley area, the Laredo area, and the Winter Garden area of South Texas, as well as in the nonirrigated Coastal Bend and the area of Wilson and Karnes counties. Late spring production is centered in north central Texas and the West Texas plains.
The peak demand for labor for onion cultivation occurred in the early part of the twentieth century. Onion seeds were sprouted in seedbeds, then planted in the fields by hand during the fall. During the harvest, the onions were plowed out of the soil and allowed to dry for a couple of days, and the plant tops were then removed. After a few more days of drying, the onions were sacked in the field, hauled to a packing shed, graded and resacked, and then were ready for shipment. During the growing season a small labor force was needed to keep the fields clear of weeds. The harvest period extended over six weeks. Rising labor costs have changed cultivation practices. Now onions are seeded directly in the fields, treated with herbicides for weed control, and irrigated with modern equipment. Tractors with elevator belts convey the onions from the field into trucks that carry the bulbs to packing facilities, where drying, grading, and sacking take place. Usual yields of onions range from 3,000 to 5,000 fifty-pound bags per acre, but a recent cultivar has produced up to 11,000 bags per acre.
The Canary Islands produced most of the onion seed planted in Texas before 1946. However, as quality declined, Grano seeds were imported from Spain in 1925. Practically all onions produced in Texas are of the Bermuda and Grano types. Because they are adapted to short days and moderately cool temperatures, these varieties are particularly suited to Texas when grown as winter or early-spring crops. An onion-breeding program at the Winter Garden Station in 1933 led to the introduction of numerous imported varieties and hybrids. In 1986 researchers at Texas A&M University introduced the Texas 1015 SuperSweet, a large, tearless onion, developed specifically for growing conditions in South Texas. The popularity of the 1015 (a reference to its planting date, October 15) prompted international interest in adapting it to other locales. Texas onions are first on the market in the spring, and their attractive appearance and mild flavor are preferred to those of old-crop and storage onions.
By 1904 approximately 500 acres of onions were planted in South Texas. In 1907 over 1,000 carloads of onions were shipped out of Texas. Shipments reached 6,735 carloads in 1917, an amount not exceeded until 1929, when 7,232 carloads were shipped. The largest movement in fifty years for a single season was 10,164 carloads in 1946. In the 1950s Texas ranked first in the United States in total acreage planted with onions. The five-year average of 44,860 acres between 1949 and 1953 represented almost 37 percent of the total onion acreage in the United States. The average annual production for this period was 10 percent of the total for the country. The highest producing county in the state in 1984 was Hidalgo County, which harvested 10,500 acres. The lower Rio Grande valley accounted for 60 percent of the 24,600 acres of onions harvested in Texas that year. Leading counties in other regions were Uvalde, in the Winter Garden area, with 880 acres harvested; Presidio, in West Texas, with 650 acres; Knox, in North Texas, with 500 acres; and Hale, in the High Plains, with 800 acres.