Burpee’s hunt for the ‘Raka Red’ onion

Va­ri­ety bred by Me­la­nia Trump’s Slove­nian grand­fa­ther could sell in U.S.

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - BY CAITLIN DEWEY

A rare red onion once planted by Me­la­nia Trump’s grand­fa­ther may one day grow in gar­dens across the United States.

It just took a de­voted seed ex­ec­u­tive and a glam­orous first lady, who has ex­pressed lit­tle overt in­ter­est in the fa­mous White House Kitchen Gar­den that her pre­de­ces­sor left.

De­ter­mined to give Trump what Burpee chief ex­ec­u­tive Ge­orge Ball calls “a lit­eral piece of home,” the Pennsylvania seed com­pany has been work­ing since the be­gin­ning of the year to lo­cate the seeds of the elu­sive “Raka Red” onion, much to the de­light of the tiny agri­cul­tural com­mu­nity in Slove­nia that Trump’s fam­ily is orig­i­nally from.

Of­fi­cials from the re­gion have been try­ing to pro­mote the onion for years, with­out much luck. Now they’re hop­ing a spot in the White House gar­den could give the ob­scure onion a much­needed bump.

“It’s fas­ci­nat­ing that this thing has sur­vived for so long, and that these guys are ac­tively try­ing to res­ur­rect it,” said Si­mon Craw­ford, a Burpee plant breeder who re­cently re­turned from a re­search trip to Raka to in­spect the farms. “Also, it’s a re­ally, re­ally lovely onion.”

The Raka is larger than a shal­lot and slightly smaller than an Amer­i­can bulb onion. It’s mild enough to eat raw, which lo­cals typ­i­cally do with wine and sausages. They also stew, sauce and top piz­zas with it.

But it’s the onion’s ori­gins that orig­i­nally

at­tracted the at­ten­tion of Ball and oth­ers at his com­pany. That’s be­cause Trump’s ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther, An­ton Ul­c­nik, was the largest grower and breeder of the onion for sev­eral decades, be­gin­ning in the late 1940s.

A spokes­woman for the first lady de­clined to com­ment, not­ing that her fam­ily mem­bers are pri­vate ci­ti­zens and it is not the of­fice’s pol­icy to speak about them. But as a ma­jor lo­cal agri­cul­tural pro­ducer, Trump’s grand­fa­ther’s work is well doc­u­mented.

Ul­c­nik, like many ru­ral Slove­ni­ans, kept live­stock and grew car­rots, turnips, beets, corn and onions on a small fam­ily farm in ad­di­tion to his work as a cob­bler, his son Franc said in com­ments trans­lated and re­ported by the Slove­nian jour­nal­ist Bo­jan Pozar. Ul­c­nik lived in the small ru­ral vil­lage of Raka, not far from the Croa­t­ian bor­der — a place still ad­ver­tised in tourist brochures for its yel­low dou­ble-steepled church and me­dieval cas­tle.

It was, and is, typ­i­cal for lo­cal peo­ple to keep large gar­dens for home use. But over time, Ul­c­nik be­gan to grow the onions for sale to dis­trib­u­tors and other farm­ers, ac­cord­ing to Franc Ul­c­nik, who is the youngest brother of Trump’s mother, Amal­ija, and is the first lady’s un­cle.

By the 1970s, Ul­c­nik was the largest sin­gle grower of Raka onions, har­vest­ing as many as 50 tons per year. He was also an im­por­tant breeder of the Raka Red, said Franc Ces­no­var, a na­tive of Raka and the man­ager of the Krsko Cen­ter for En­trepreneur­ship and Tourism.

“Me­la­nia’s grand­fa­ther was the big­gest Raka onion and onion seed pro­ducer and the pri­mary se­lec­tion­ist at that time,” Ces­no­var said in an email. “He surely helped im­prove the qual­ity of the species by se­lect­ing the best plants, and pre­served ‘Raka Red’ for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.”

But the Raka Red fell from promi­nence in the 1980s and ’90s. An­ton Ul­c­nik, who died in 1992, scaled down his com­mer­cial op­er­a­tion as he aged. The econ­omy of Slove­nia also un­der­went rad­i­cal change dur­ing that pe­riod, ex­pe­ri­enc­ing rapid de­vel­op­ment and in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion in the wake of the breakup of the for­mer Yu­goslavia. Given those changes, farm­ing was no longer an at­trac­tive oc­cu­pa­tion to many peo­ple.

At present, only a hand­ful of com­mer­cial farms grow the Raka Red, Ces­no­var said. It’s mostly con­fined to fam­ily veg­etable plots. But his or­ga­ni­za­tion has been work­ing to bring it back, by en­cour­ag­ing farm­ers to plant more acres of Raka Red and by pro­mot­ing the onion to gro­cery shop­pers and foodie tourists as a pre­mium lo­cal prod­uct.

Lo­cal agri­cul­ture schools have part­nered with Raka Red farm­ers. Gov­ern­ment grants have spon­sored work­shops and tours about the onion. Ces­no­var’s or­ga­ni­za­tion has trade­marked the phrase “Best of Raka” for the onion and mar­kets it be­side lo­cal wine in re­gional tourism ma­te­ri­als.

A Raka Red in the White House gar­den would raise the onion’s pro­file con­sid­er­ably.

“We be­lieve the whole story of the onions and the lo­cal culi­nary traditions has great po­ten­tial to de­velop into some kind of a tourist prod­uct,” Ces­no­var said.

But there are still a num­ber of hur­dles keep­ing the onion from the White House, no mat­ter how des­per­ately Slove­nian farm­ers or Burpee ex­ec­u­tives might like to see it there.

The seed stock still has to be tested and stan­dard­ized, and then it must un­dergo tri­als at farms in the United States. Only then — fall 2018 at the ear­li­est — can Ball present it to the Na­tional Park Ser­vice for plant­ing in the White House Kitchen Gar­den.

“I have been made aware of the com­pany’s in­ten­tions with the seeds, but they have not reached out to the White House about it,” a spokes­woman for the first lady said. And even then, it’s un­clear whether she will wel­come the new ad­di­tion.

Although it is likely that Me­la­nia Trump has seen, and per­haps even har­vested, the onion be­fore — she told DuJour mag­a­zine that she vis­ited her grand­par­ents ev­ery week­end grow­ing up — she has not shown much in­ter­est in the fa­mous gar­den that Michelle Obama left.

The only pub­lic state­ment that her of­fice has made about the gar­den was the prom­ise, in Fe­bru­ary, that the first lady would not tear it up. The Burpee Foun­da­tion had pre­vi­ously do­nated $2.5 mil­lion to pre­serve the gar­den through 2030.

“I can’t pre­dict if she’ll be a cham­pion for the gar­den,” Ball said. “I hope so. I don’t know.”

But he main­tains that the best way to spark the first lady’s in­ter­est may be to plant her a piece of home — as early as late next year, de­pend­ing on how the Raka Red grows.

“Some of the great plant breed­ers were Slavic,” Ball said. “And here we have these seeds, de­scended from her grand­fa­ther. Right from her grand­fa­ther’s hand.”


An­ton Ul­c­nik, Me­la­nia Trump’s grand­fa­ther, was the largest grower and breeder of the onion in his home­land.


First lady Me­la­nia Trump’s grand­fa­ther was the largest sin­gle grower of Raka onions by the 1970s, har­vest­ing as many as 50 tons per year.


Hav­ing a Raka Red in the White House Kitchen Gar­den, seen above, would raise the onion’s pro­file. But the first lady has shown lit­tle in­ter­est so far in the gar­den left by the Oba­mas.

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