The Local Food Report: walla walla

Last Saturday, David Light sold me an onion.

It weighed 1.46 pounds, and it was big and round and sweet. He grew it from Walla Walla seed, and he was planning on selling it as a Walla Walla onion until he found out something very interesting. We'll start at the beginning, okay?

Walla Walla onions have a long history. According to legend, a Frenchman named Peter Pieri brought the seed over from Italy to the Walla Walla Valley in Washington State in 1890. The valley has a specific kind of soil—very low in sulfur and very rich—and a mild climate. The onion thrived. Pieri and his neighbors kept growing, and kept selecting the seed from the biggest, roundest, sweetest plants. After a few generations, people said the Walla Walla onions were so sweet you could eat them like an apple. They got a reputation.

Other people grew Walla Walla onions, too—people outside the valley. But in 1995, a group of growers from the Walla Walla Valley decided that this wasn't fair. The Walla Walla had gotten its name from their soil and their climate, they reasoned, and people simply couldn't grow the same quality onion elsewhere. So they took their case to the federal government, and it handed down Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Order Number 956.

Basically, the marketing order makes it illegal for anyone outside the legally specified growing area—Walla Walla Valley, which is in partly in southeastern Washington and also a little bit in Oregon state—to market their onions as Walla Walla sweets. There's a ten member committee that regulates this.

But here's where things get confusing. Seed catalogs and plant vendors can sell their products under the Walla Walla name, just not the onions themselves. But when David Light bought his Walla Walla plants, there was nothing that said "Caution!" or "Be Careful!" He had no idea he couldn't sell his onions under the Walla Walla name.

He found out about the marketing order before it caused him any trouble. He sells his Walla Walla variety onions as Sweet Corsicans. But I talked with a small market farmer in Ohio, Lucy Goodman, who got a letter ordering her to cease and desist or pay a fine of $5,000 a day.

I can't really decide where I stand on this. On the one hand, yes! we want to protect local food and its heritage and traditions. But should we get the federal government involved?

What do you think? I'm curious.

P.S. There's a similar marketing order for selling Vidalia onions. Georgia growers got theirs before the Walla Walla growers, back in 1989.


Teresa Parker said...

As a Wellfleeter, I'm especially proud when I see our oysters named on a menu in New York or even farther away. I wouldn't want just anyone to call his oysters "Wellfleets." Likewise, when I drink a wine from a d.o. that a friend has worked hard to be a part of, I appreciate all that has gone into getting that wine to qualify. Official designations aren't always perfect indicators of quality, but I think they can be an important part of promoting appreciation for the link between products we consume and our varied land our waters.

As for the government's enforcement of such protections, well, I'd say thanks rather than scowls are in order. After all, it is we (I mean we let's-find-out-from-where-so-we-can-appreciate-and-preserve it) food lovers who have asked for these protections, and rejoice in the recognition. So when we're on the other side of those rules and we're asked to comply, we need to have the will to do that too.

Coming up with a new name for his onion doesn't seem like such a terrible task. It might even have been fun. And it will surely be good for business.

The Table of Promise said...

I rather think that the order is okay. Champagne can only be grown in France. and truthfully, champagne grown here in the states tastes different. There is something about the soil in the chanpagne region of France that is different.

At least the order was a cease and desist. That gives the farmer the opportunity to just stop and not face fines. It would be different if he faced prosecution or fines just for committing the act of mis marketing. Then an unknowing farmer would be held accountable for things he may not have understood.

Whiffletree Farm said...

It's interesting that food is able to retain its identity through the courts because many other things can not. The "Navajo" blanket, for example, was initially called that because it was made by Navajo weavers. The design was hijacked, manufactured and sold by many retailers as the Navajo design. When the Navajo people took this to court, they lost the case. Lost it!! The judge said that the design had become "acculturized." You know, like any large, sweet onion could be called a Walla Walla. But no. They won their case.

Andrea said...

I'm not much into going so far as government intervention, but I do see the overall point. I guess my thoughts are that it isn't hard to give the product a name and to use what you've presented here as an educational tool. This story is interesting and can be told to the buyer. It wouldn't be wrong to say that it is grown from Walla Walla seed, would it? Either way, it's the taste that will keep people coming back!

Beh marcus said...

As one commenter mentioned, champagne is the same way..as is bourbon...as it must be distilled in bourbon county...one of my favorites (who'da thunk it!) is the one about Kolsch only being brewed within sight of the cathedral of cologne. When you think about it in terms of tradition its cool..when you think about it in terms of trademark protection etc and lawyers (the only ones who ever make any money on these deals) then its not that cool..imho....the story about the Navajos not being to protect their ancestry and design is sad....

Elspeth said...

Wow! I love all these comments. And the more I think about this, the more I think I agree with the general idea of protecting something regional by law and by name.

But for the sake of farmers outside of the Walla Walla valley, I guess I think the seed and plant companies should be required to print the law or a briefer version of it on their seed packets or in their catalogs. Otherwise, how does a farmer know it's okay to sell "Danvers" variety carrots as Danvers and not "Walla Walla" variety onions as Walla Wallas? I think that needs to be clarified. No, it's not a big deal to get a cease and desist order, but wouldn't it be better for everyone (the government, the Walla Walla board, the growers) to tell people in the first place?

That way, as several of you have pointed out, growers could use the law as a selling point, an educational tool, and just a great story.

Little House on the Suburban Prairie said...

I don't necessarily feel the government needs to be involved, but I do like that if I go to buy a Walla Walla onion, I can be confident of the region it came from.

Sarah said...

Parmesan vs Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses might offer a solution. When I want authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano, I look for the markings on the rind. But sometimes I'm satisfied with just Parmesan, knowing that I'm getting something closer in flavour than, say, Cheddar or Swiss.

If a grower starts from Walla Walla seed, the onions are more closely related to Walla Walla onions than other varieties. Maybe onions from seed could be called Walla-sweet versus Walla Walla for onions from seed and region? That way the consumer would at least know they're related.

Completely agree that the seed packets should include a statement something like:

Onions grown from this seed may be called "Walla-Sweet" onions but can only be marketed as "Walla Walla" onions if grown in the Walla Walla Valley according to regulations of the Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Order Number 956. [url to link to specifics and history]


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