US expert knows his onions
AFTER decades in the onion industry Bill Dean knows just about everything there is to know about the humble vegetable.
Mr Dean is based at major onion producing operation River Point Farms at Columbia Basin in Oregon in the United States. Last week Mr Dean made his second visit to Tasmania where he met with growers to discuss a number of issues. River Point Farms grows about 2000ha of onions each year. Of this about 65 per cent are red onions and the rest are brown onions, as well as some sweet varieties.
The company has the national contract to supply onions to Subway stores across North America.
When it comes to brown onions, Mr Dean said Americans prefer larger sized onions that can be used to make things like onion rings.
About 70 per cent of the company’s business is in wholesale markets with the restaurant and fast food industries.
The crops are grown on leased ground and the company controls the process right from sowing through to harvesting, storage, sales and marketing.
Crop rotations are set at a minimum of four years. “It’s important for disease management to have a good rotation plan,” Mr Dean said.
The company supplies onions year round so plantings are staggered.
It starts in late August for what are called over winter onions, which make up about 10 per cent of the crop.
Then in spring direct seed onions and transplanted onions are sown from March through until the first week of April.
Harvesting gets underway mid June and goes through until the first part of October.
Crops are stored from then until new crops are available the next year.
Mr Dean said the climate in his company’s growing region was much warmer than Tasmania and felt greater pressure from insect pests.
Crop nutrition was one of the main subjects Mr Dean discussed with Tasmanian growers last week.
”I did extensive tests starting in 2008 on our farm in order to prove out what the right nutritional levels should be,” he said.
“Because the data was a little sparse for our growing region specifically, I had some doubts about some of the recommendations. Because of that testing we reduced our fertiliser use significantly.
“It’s all a matter of scale, but we saved $400,000 a year by going through the testing program, with no impact on yields.”
Mr Dean said there was a possibility similar testing may also give Tasmanian growers an opportunity to reduce fertiliser use.
“From an environmental standpoint as well as an economic standpoint that’s a real positive for us,” he said.
“Particularly nitrogen use, we as other people are always worried about nitrogen in the water supplies and things.”
Changing tastes among US consumers has been good news for the onion industry, which has seen demand growing.
More and more people in the US are starting to prefer salsa, which has a higher onion content, rather than traditional ketchup.
A return to home cooking is also increasing consumption.
“You use a little bit of onion in so many kinds of things,” Mr Dean said.
“I would guess with the foodie attitudes people have where they want to have a little bit more diverse cuisine, that’s helping.”
Sweet onions, which are not really grown in Australia, are a common product in the US.
“You don’t have a real sweet onion program here, that’s something that I personally have been involved with since 1989,” Mr Dean said.
Sweet onions are best eaten raw and are used in hamburgers or salads. They add a nice flavour but they don’t have the hotness,” Mr Dean said.
“A common misconception is that sweet onions are higher in sugar, but in fact they don’t have any more sugar than a conventional onion, but a very low pungency, so you don’t have the hot spiciness. I eat it raw all the time.”