Mason Valley crop has world market

YERINGTON -- The faint smell of onions fills the air during harvest time in Mason Valley, along with the rhythmic clicking of the field workers' shears.

Hundreds of Mexican laborers move in teams of six down the rows of onions already unearthed by machines. Five of the men grab three or four onions at a time by their tops. Just above the bulbs, they cut off the tops, letting the onions drop into large, plastic buckets. As the buckets fill, a sixth man empties them into 140-pound burlap bags.

The 420 workers move methodically across the field, some of them whistling, a few singing in Spanish.

A crew like this can harvest the 40-acre field in a day, said David Peri of Peri and Sons Farms.

"It's hard work, but these guys are used to it," he said, looking at the bowed backs of the laborers. "You're bent over like that all day. It's backbreaking work."

The farmers, workers and many Mason Valley residents depend on the money they reap from the onion harvest. At the same time, the nearly 730 Mexican laborers change the face of this rural area, as their influence is felt in its schools, churches and even the aisles of its stores.

And although the workers send most of their money home to their families, Mexico imports Mason Valley onions, infusing cash back into the area.

"I'm here for necessity, searching for something better," said Tomas Cota, who originally came from Mexicali, but now lives in Nevada with his wife and two children.

He said Mason Valley is "tranquilo," or tranquil, and he enjoys living there, although the work is hard.

Cota is among the 500 laborers Peri and Sons hired to help with this year's crop.

The workers get paid $7.60 per hour and often put in 11-hour days.

In addition to their wages, they receive free housing in the company's $2 million labor camp complex plus medical insurance, tools, gloves, goggles, dust masks, ear plugs, hats and shears.

Under federal law, these jobs must be advertised through the state employment services in Nevada, California and Arizona, but Peri said most Americans can't handle this kind of manual labor.

"We'd get guys who only lasted a half a day before they'd quit so we had a professional videotape made of the work they do," he said. "After they'd see that, no one would show up."

Unlike migrant workers, most of the Mexican workers are on temporary work visas that expire when the harvest ends.

Peri and Sons Farms contracts for the workers through the federal government and pays Greyhound Bus Lines to transport them to Yerington and back to Mexico.

"So they don't qualify for any federal or state programs or benefits," Peri said. "And by law, they can't use their work visas to go to California or any other state. They're supposed to go back to Mexico. Of course, we can't control whether they get off the bus."

About 70 of Peri and Sons' workers typically do get visas that allow them to remain here longer, some for up to 11 months, to help process and ship the onions and then plant and weed next year's crop, he said.

Like most of the onion growers in Yerington, the 44-year-old Peri learned to speak Spanish while growing up around the area's agricultural workers.

One of the two owners of Peri and Sons, David Peri is senior vice president and treasurer. He also is the man in charge of growing the onions that have earned Peri and Sons a worldwide reputation for prime, fresh white onions.

Butch Peri, his cousin and co-owner, is president and secretary of the company.

"We are the largest single seed-to-grocery store company in the world that grows, packs and ships fresh market onions, the kind consumers buy at the supermarket," he said.

This year's crop could bring from $12 million to $20 million, David Peri said.

"It depends on the market, on supply and demand," he said. "On an average, it should be worth around $15 (million) to $16 million."

Butch Peri estimates their business is about a $35 million agricultural operation, which includes growing alfalfa, much of which is pressed and shipped overseas.

The growing season for onions is from the first of March to the middle of September. The crop is harvested from the middle of August to the middle of October. Then the onions are kept in storage and sold to stores from September to the end of March.

Outside the Peri and Sons processing plant and warehouses, the signs of onions blow in the wind. Loose pieces of the skins of red, yellow and white onions skitter like dry pieces of parchment across the pavement or float in the air.

Inside the plant, machines and workers sort the onions by color and size: yellow Wabuska Whoppers and Gold Nuggets, white Mustangs and Desert Diamonds, red Purple Passions and Nevada Desert Rubies.

The onions, all marketed under the Peris' Nevada High Desert Onions trademark, are sold to supermarket chains in every state in the nation, while about 1 percent is shipped to other countries, David Peri said.

Mexico is their biggest importer of onions, followed by Canada.

Other countries that have imported Peri onions at one time or another are Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, England, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore, Panama, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Venezuela, the Caribbean, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica.

"It varies from year to year where they go," said Butch Peri.

And despite being surrounded by fields of onions, a processing plant filled with onions and warehouses packed with onions, the odor never bothers David Peri.

No," he said with a smile. "Smells like money to me."


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