US ex­pert knows his onions

Tasmanian Country - - NEWS - KAROLIN MACGRE­GOR

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.”

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