Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Onions: "A Healthy Basic"

By:  Farmer Richard

Onions being unloaded for
drying in the greenhouse.

This week has been a big week for us.  In addition to our regular weekly tasks, we’ve been trying to get all of our onions pulled, dried and safely stored in the greenhouse.  We have been blessed with several days of dry weather which allowed us to start our harvest last week.  We brought some onions in on Saturday, then pulled more and left them to dry on top of the bed in the field before we brought them into the greenhouse on Tuesday for the final drying, cleaning, etc.  But now we’re faced with chances of rain the rest of the week.  Yes, there is an anticipation as well as some apprehension and nervousness that goes along with the excitement of every onion harvest.  I sleep at night because I’m simply tired, but I won’t sleep soundly until all the onions are harvested and safely under cover.  Two-thirds of this year’s crop are harvested and so far, they look great!

Onions are an important crop on our farm.  They aren’t one of our big dollar crops, in fact they are probably one of the most labor intensive crops to handle with a higher overall cost of production.  However, we firmly believe that daily consumption of plants in the onion/garlic family is one key to good health and they are a staple ingredient that we, and many other families, include in our daily meals.  Thus, we plan to include an onion and/or garlic selection of some sort in every CSA box over the course of our thirty week season.

Wild Ramps
With the above goals in mind, we start the season with ramps, wild-harvested from our woods.  Ramps are followed or accompanied by several perennial selections including chives and our overwintered Egyptian walking onions and potato onions.  These selections give us a jump start on the season while we are hustling to grow onions from seed to cover the remainder of the year and get us through the winter until the next spring when we start again with the perennial crops.  The beauty of onions is that they are “in season” every season of the year!

Whether red, white or yellow onions, there are a wide variety of choices to select from and we consider the genetics of a seed to be very important.    We look for varieties that have disease resistant tops that will survive long enough to produce a full sized onion.  The sweet Spanish onions you’ve been receiving in your boxes the past few weeks are an early season variety that is very mild when eaten raw and super sweet when cooked because of their higher levels of sugars.  They have a thinner outer skin and will store for just 3-6 months at most.  In contrast, there are different varieties grown to produce an onion that has the ability to hold in long-term storage for 9-12 months.  These varieties are usually “tear jerkers” and are much stronger and more pungent.  They still have natural sugars that come out when cooked, but the chemical makeup of the onion and lower sugar concentrations are what help keep the onion in good quality during long storage.  We don’t need to store onions for 9-12 months, so in recent years we have opted to grow more shorter season sweet onions that grow faster and are more mild.  We believe there are health benefits from eating raw or just lightly cooked onions and garlic, so for several different reasons we consider onions in this class to be a good fit for us. 
Potato onions popping up in the spring!!
Onions are a challenge to grow in that they grow slow and their tops are poor competitors against weeds.  Also, they are vulnerable to the tiny onion thrip, a natural pest enemy which sucks on onion tops deep in the center and leaves holes for disease spores to enter the onion as they kill the top and hence stop the onion development.  Commercial, conventional onions are all treated with systemic insecticide, a neonicotinoid which has its own severe problems.

Onions respond well to regular watering, but can quickly suffer from too much water.  Twenty-five years ago, when we grew onions on bare ground, we would harvest good looking onions to dry in the greenhouse, only to find later that many had “soft rot” in the center or a soft layer somewhere in the rings.  Our investigations led us to understand that the bad layer was the result of an earlier wet weather event in the field.  The neck rot was due to damage caused by the thrips that created an entry point into the onion for the bacteria that causes soft rot.

So we decided we needed a new strategy.  We transitioned to a system of transplanting 4 rows of onions on a raised bed, covered with plastic mulch that has a shiny, reflective surface that almost totally keeps thrips away by disorienting them!  The raised bed drains off excess water quickly, but the buried drip tape under the bed allows us to water and feed onions at their roots.

Onions starting out in the greenhouse.
Waiting for the day they can be in the field!
Before the storms blew through a few weeks ago, we had nice sized onions and shallots in the field.  The high winds blew the tops down, which was the start of the dry down process.  The size of an onion is determined by how thick or thin we seed them in the greenhouse.  Single onions can easily reach 1# each!  Too big for most meals, leaving you with a partially used onion in the refrigerator to be forgotten.  In my “humble cook” opinion, I think it is better to have more modest sized onions that can be used in one meal yet not so small that you have to peel several at a time. We pay close attention to the quality of the seed and try to adjust our seeding rate accordingly to get the size onions we’re looking for.

Field of Onions!
Once the onion transplants are big enough, we transplant them into their plastic mulch covered beds.  They go to the field as early in April as the weather allows and it takes us most of 3 days with a crew of 7 to transplant two acres.  Over the course of their season, they receive more water and fish fertilizer than most other crops.  The entire system is an expensive production system with the late February greenhouse planting, the reflective mulch to deter the thrips, hand harvest, and then the many hours of topping and cleaning them by hand.  We have a mechanical onion topper, but we have chosen to hand top and clean because it produces a more “pristine” onion without mechanical topping damage.  This is all very labor intensive and we know we cannot compete with the price of onions grown in the dry western states with more mechanized systems.  We only grow onions for our CSA members and local customers, with only a small percentage of shallots and cipollini onions for our retail partners.  We hope you appreciate the extra effort we put forth to make this all come together and I encourage you to please eat onions daily for flavor and health! 
Onions on the plastic mulch drying a
little before heading to the greenhouse
for more drying time!

1 comment:

crloeb said...

We DO appreciate the amazing effort - and the delicious result. Thank you!