Guy’s news: More than you need to know about onions

Onions are one of the most expensive and challenging crops to grow organically; only stubbornness keeps us from giving up and buying cheap (and irritatingly good) ones from Holland. They establish slowly, never producing a full canopy, and are not very competitive, making weed control a challenge in a dry year and near impossible in a wet one. The fungal disease mildew always threatens yield – and can kill the leaves before the necks of the onions are sealed, meaning they will not keep.

Assuming they survive weed and pestilence to reach maturity, the next challenge is getting the onions harvested and dried, with the set skins and sealed necks that will protect them from disease in store. The occasional calamitous year is inevitable; in ’98 the whole stinking crop went on the compost heap. To give ourselves the best chance, we have moved the storing crop to Sacrewell, our farm in Cambridgeshire, where the humidity is lower and the rainfall is roughly half that of Devon, stacking the odds more in our favour.

The onion crop at Sacrewell has been ready to harvest for weeks, but we have been frustrated by the weather. Once most of the crop has formed a neck and the leaves have ‘gone over’ (bent towards the ground), we top away most of the remaining leaves, harvest the onions into windrows, and bring them into store as quickly as the weather allows. As I write, half the crop is in the field and half in the barn, where we initially blow air at 29°C for three days to seal the onions’ necks. The barn is then kept at 26°C using recirculated air for three weeks while the skins set, before slowly being brought down to ambient temperature. The whole process takes about a month, after which the onions are ready for sale. Those we plan to keep are then put in cold store to delay sprouting until just before sale, when they are warmed up again and cleaned ready to go in your boxes. It’s a skilled and specialised job with a high cost of failure, and the market price never really seems to reflect the work and the risk. That said, when you get it right, there are few things more satisfying than going into winter with a barn full of firm, rustling dry onions.

Guy Watson

10 responses to “Guy’s news: More than you need to know about onions

  1. Amazing, I will never look at a Riverford onion again in the same light, without being in awe!! Keep persevering and don’t let the onions get the better of you. You Riverford boys obviously know your onions.

  2. Thank you Guy for this, I’ll share info with our volunteers. I’ve always reveared the onion- can’t seem to cook a meal without one- now even more so knowing the great effort and the uncertaintity made in bringing this wonderful item to the table.
    Food in Community cic

  3. Wow, I have no idea growing the humble onion was so difficult. Bedfordshire used to be the centre of British Onion growing and the county is trying to find and preserve some examples of the black onion drying barns that used to exist.The Bedfordshire Champion was the variety that can still be bought today.
    Here’s a recipe that you might like.
    Onion Jam
    100 g (3 ½ oz) butter
    1 tbsp olive oil
    925 g (2 lb) onions, chopped
    2 tsps salt
    freshly ground black pepper
    170 g (6 oz) fairtrade golden caster sugar
    8 tbsp raspberry vinegar
    300 ml (½ pint) red wine

    Heat the butter and olive oil in a large pan until it is hot, stir in the onions, salt, pepper and sugar.
    Cover the pan and simmer very gently for about 40 mins, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking.
    Add the vinegar and the wine, simmer uncovered for another 30 mins, stirring frequently towards the end of cooking time, until the liquid has been absorbed and it has a jam-like consistency.
    Put 2 washed and dried Bon Maman size jam jars in the oven on the lowest heat for 5 mins (If you stand them on a small metal baking tray its easy to handle them)
    Remove tray with jars. Pour onion jam into them, put clean washed lids on top screwed on tightly.
    Label when cool, store in a cool dark place. Refrigerate after opening.

  4. I’ve never had good success with onions either although have grown some spiffing garlic. Shallots fared even worse. I did weed vigilantly but in a coastal area the air is often damp. This year the onions bolted. Fellow allotment growers don’tseem to have this issue and have gone on to produce rows of fine large specimens. I believe they sowed from seed whereas I sowed from sets and they put theirs out in Spring and I overwintered. Variety may be my problem as I’ve always done Japanese onion sets. I love onions and garlic and truly believe they help the immune system no end and that’s why even if I do manage to get caught with a pesky cold virus it goes within 3 days as I up the onion and garlic, eat some raw garlic and drink squeezed lemon with a teaspoon of honey and hot water. The experience hasn’t hurt me and I always have yours to fall back on and do, often.

  5. What do the Dutch do that makes their onion production so successful ?

  6. Guy I love your newsletter each week, there is so much interesting science behind a successful crop and you convey the information with an enthusiasm that is infectious, keep it up.

  7. To misquote a well known phrase, don’t let the onions grind you down!

  8. I’ve thought in the past your veg box was stingy with onions compared to a generous helping of carrots. Now I know why!

  9. Guy you have the patience of a saint l admire you. Never knew how difficult growing an onion could be .Don t think I’ll bother ,!

  10. Jeez Guy…I had no idea the humble onion was such a tricky customer! Love the veg, goes without saying but equally look forward to the weekly blogs, they are so informative. I have learned loads and really feel connected and part of the Riverford farm:.I am also so much more appreciative of what goes into growing vegetables. Thanks Guy.

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