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HOMEGROWN Life: Growing, Curing & Storing Onions

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014

 

HOMEGROWN-LIFE-LT-GREENAround here, we go through half a dozen onions a week because we’re slightly nuts, but they add so much flavor to meals, how could we not? There’s no possible way we could grow enough onions to provide for all year long unless we severely cut back, but who would want to do that? We do, however, try to grow as much as we can to meet at least some of our onion needs. There are several different types of onions: Bunching, walking, multiplier, and bulb are the most common. Here, I’ll be talking mostly about bulbing onions.

Once you figure out what works best for you, growing onions can be very rewarding. If taken care of in the beginning, they’re kind of a set-it-and-forget-it crop until harvest.

onion copy

Choosing Onions

Growing onions can be very rewarding but it can also be a bit confusing. When you look up onions in your seed catalog, the description will read “Long Day,” “Short Day,” or “Day Neutral/Intermediate.” These descriptions refer to how and where, geographically, the onion grows best. When you plant onions, they’ll start out looking like scallions. When the day length reaches a certain point, the onion will start to bulb. The trick is to get the most greens on the plant before it does this. More and bigger greens = a bigger bulb. But you don’t want it to take so long that it will bolt too early before harvest and before you have a bulb.

  • Short day varieties require 12 hours of daylight to start bulbing.
  • Long day varieties require 14 to 16 hours of daylight to start bulbing.

The general rule is, if you live above the 35th parallel (draw a line from San Francisco to Washington, DC) you’ll want to grow long day onions because you will get longer days to encourage bulbing. Growing a short day variety in the north will cause your onion to bulb too early and end up being too small. Below the 35th parallel, you’ll want to stick with short day varieties. Growing a long day variety in the south will result in an onion that bolts before it ever bulbs because the days never got long enough. If you’re pretty close to the 35th parallel, you can do either type pretty successfully. Our most successful onion variety at our house is Yellow of Parma, which is a long day variety. Day neutral, also called intermediate, can be grown anywhere.

Next you’ll need to figure out what types of onions you want to grow. A good rule of thumb is the sweeter and milder the onion, the shorter the shelf life, or about two months. If you have a bumper crop of red onions, you can preserve them by pickling, or even caramelizing and then freezing them for future use. Onion varieties like Vidalia, Maui, most red types, and Grano are going to have a short shelf life and are best eaten fresh. The more pungent yellow and white onions, such as Yellow of Parma, Ailsa Craig, Copra, and Cortland, can be stored for as long as 12 months. We usually grow one-third red onions and one-third yellow onions.

onions growing

Growing Onions

There are several ways you can plant onions. You can use seeds, transplants, or sets. Sets are basically miniature onions that you plant out. Sets are 1-year-old onions, so they can sometimes be more prone to bolting early, as onions are biennials and flower in their second year. Onions transplant very well, so you can start with transplants to get a jump on the season. I usually start with seed but have found that onions are a bit finicky about direct sowing, so I start them indoors and then transplant them out. I like to use seed mostly because there are many more varieties available that way than in any other form.

You can plant your onions en masse. When you do, just tease them apart. I start them in flats in the greenhouse and once they are about 3 inches tall, I transplant them in a well-amended, loose bed of soil. Don’t use a high nitrogen fertilizer for onions, although you do want to offer them some nitrogen. What you want is more phosphorus to encourage root growth. A good amendment would be a combination of poultry and steer (or goat) manures.

There are two very important things to know about growing onions. They need a good amount of water, especially when they’re young, and they really dislike competition from weeds. You can mulch around them with straw after they’re big enough to help with both of these issues.

Onions curing

Harvesting Onions, Curing Onions & Storing Onions

When the tops of the onions start to fall over, you are nearing harvest time. We usually wait until almost all of the tops are down and most are beginning to dry up before harvesting. We harvest in August, when it’s bone dry here, but if you live somewhere that rains, make sure to wait until you have a nice break in the rain and the ground has a chance to dry out some before harvesting. Don’t pull the onions out by their tops. Instead, use a shovel or a fork to gently lift them out of the ground. You want to keep the top on through the curing process to avoid opening the onion up to pathogens that could cause their early demise.

Other things to watch out for are bruising and onions that have bolted. The bolted onions will have a stiff stem coming up through the center. It is safe to assume that any onions that have dropped on the ground are bruised. These we set aside to be used first. The rest of the onions we lay out on a table in a single layer in a warm area with good circulation but out of direct sun. We have a metal patio table with a mesh top that works well for this but we also use a wood table with just as much luck. Don’t wash them or peel off any layers.

Allow your onions to cure for about 2 weeks. The tops and roots of the plant will dry down to nothing. Once they are completely dry, the curing process is done and you can trim the top and the roots. Store them in a cool, dark place. We store them in small burlap bags in our water tower and garage. I prefer the smaller bags because it allows all of the onions to get plenty of air circulation. The larger, coffee-bean-sized burlap bags always end up causing the onions in the center to rot first.

A proper curing will ensure that your onions keep for a good, long time. I do find as they age they become more pungent and oh, boy, can they leave you in tears! Just throw them in the freezer for about 10 minutes prior to cutting to avoid crying all over your cutting board.

Some resources for onion seed:

Rachel-Dog-Island-FarmRachel’s friends in college used to call her a Renaissance woman. She was always doing something crafty, creative, or utilitarian. She still is. Instead of crafts, her focus these days has been farming as much of her urban quarter-acre as humanly possible. Along with her husband, she runs Dog Island Farm, in the San Francisco Bay Area. They raise chickens, goats, rabbits, dogs, cats, and a kid. They’re always keeping busy. If Rachel isn’t out in the yard, she’s in the kitchen making something from scratch. Homemade always tastes better!

HOMEGROWN Life: From September Rains to Holiday Radishes, Farmer Bryce Traces How Marginal Land Could Furnish America’s Christmas Dinner

Thursday, September 4th, 2014

 

HOMEGROWN-life-bryce-logo-150x150Ah, yes. A rainy September morning.

It’s one of the glories of the annual cycle of seasons on the farm. Here in western Missouri, fall planting has commenced. Lettuce and spinach and radishes and other leafy and rooting plants are in the ground. But right now they’re just sitting there, waiting for calming temperatures and moisture. After a burning August (I’m not complaining; 2014 had some good and timely rains), we’re hoping for the heat to break and the fall crops to take off.

They need to get going soon if we’re to have a harvest in the next few weeks. The sun is rapidly retreating. The soil is still pretty dry. And yet, even knowing those conditions, we hope things will work out. Maybe the fall will be long and mild. Maybe the temperature will be in that magic 65-degree high, 45-degree low range until Christmas. Maybe.

HOMEGROWNsubmitthanksgivingphotosIt’s all relative, though. I count myself lucky. I live on fairly marginal farmland for specialty crop growing, specifically vegetable production. For the most part, that’s due to our occasional super-high winds and wild temperature fluctuations. And then there’s bug damage and disease and wilt—the latter thanks to our spotty but sometimes incredibly heavy rains. But this is only “marginality” in comparison with other places where veggies are the specialty, such as the mountain-protected regions of the American West. I’m talking about you, California. And you, Colorado River Basin.

I pick on the Colorado River watershed a lot in my head, for a very simple reason: Geography and environmental destruction are my nagging worries. I’m a guy who really struggles with water. The Colorado River has water worries in piles and piles. That sucker doesn’t even make it to its delta, on the southeast California-Baja California coast.

And this retreating river is only part of the issue. A lot of the problem has to do with agriculture. The Imperial Valley supplies an estimated 80 percent of US-produced winter vegetables. As the writer and photographer Pete McBride tells it, we might not realize it, but we Americans “eat the Colorado River” during Thanksgiving and Christmas.

rootsandgreens

That’s because the majority of fresh produce in grocery stores has a Colorado River pedigree during the holidays. The microclimate there and the farmers in the region have developed a serious agribusiness based on the area’s “economic competitiveness,” or giant monocultures of industrial vegetables that get shipped out to the highest bidder.

I woke up to this reality while I was enjoying this morning’s rainstorm. Mother Jones blogger Tom Philpott laid it out clearly: The highly veggie-productive Colorado River region could be facing an absolute lack of water very soon.

So what does that mean for Midwestern, Southern, and Eastern veggie growers like me? We better get our acts together. We better embrace our advantages of fall and winter production, construct hoop houses and greenhouses, and try to build on the beginnings of a nonsummer production season.

hightunnel

Because those of us with experience know a longer season is ripe for the picking. We’re not trying to steal the market from our farmer friends in the Southwest. Rather, we know two things:

  1. Local food is fresher and can have a much smaller carbon footprint than industrial produce.
  2. People want a more transparent food system that aligns ecological practices with healthy meals.

So, get ready, veggie growers. Whether we like it or not, somebody needs to provide the greens and radishes and carrots for all those holiday meals. Entire industries are built upon such societal shifts. The question is whether, through agricultural policy and funding, we, as produce growers, and we, as a society, can make the transition away from desert-based veggie production in a manner that limits harm while providing maximum local economic development.

FennelApricotStuffing

Maybe it’s time we quit listening to all of those economists who keep nay-saying “government picking winners and losers.” If we can transition the fall and winter veggie system in our country from the desert Southwest to the Midwest, South, and East, everybody can win. Yes, everybody: farmers, consumers, and the environment.

Who knows? Maybe that broader geographic distribution of farm laborers who follow the produce would help us fix immigration policy, as well. Maybe not. But it’s worth pursuing.

HOMEGROWN-life-Bryce-OatesBryce Oates is a farmer, a father, a writer, and a conservationist in western Missouri. He lives and works on his family’s multigenerational farm, tending cattle, sheep, goats, and organic vegetables. His goals in life are simple: to wake up before the sun, catch a couple of fish, turn the compost pile, dig some potatoes, and sit by the fire in the evening, watching the fireflies mimic the stars.

PHOTOS: (HOLIDAY PLATE) JENNIFER; (ROOTS AND GREENS) ANDREA DiMAURO; (HIGH TUNNEL) RICHARD MAXWELL; (FENNEL APRICOT STUFFING) PENNY V.

HOMEGROWN Life: The Healing Power of Farming

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

 

HOMEGROWN LifeAnyone who digs in the dirt, mucks out stalls, or tends flocks or herds will tell you that, through the dirt and the grime, past the sweat and the toil, there is a healing power in farming as therapy.

Whether it’s hugging a sweet lamb with a soft coat, jogging alongside goat kids as they do double twists in the air, relishing the beauty of horses running free, tugging off boots almost stuck to the souls of your feet, or scrub-brushing fingernails that are never going to be white again, farming is about the stuff of life. It’s up close and personal. It’s not just walking on the ground but being grounded. It’s dirty and earthy and full of messy stuff.

HOMEGROWN-life-dyanAs emotional creatures, we humans can’t help but react to it. Even the hardest-hit soul, battered by life’s events or simply the trauma of daily living, would find it hard to resist.

Recently, I met a hard-hit soul. A sweet young woman, who had been on the cusp of a life with her soul mate. They had plans. They had dreams. They had hope. They were just beginning a future together. All that was lost in an unexpected and almost inexplicable accident. Now she’s left to sort out what’s next.

She came to my table at the Grange Hall flea market. I had taken my project from last winter to lay out on the table for people to see: a book—my story, about my journey into farming. After she read the opening page, she looked up at me from across the market table and asked me a question, one only someone who has suffered a loss such as hers dares to ask: “How long did it take you to feel like you could go on?”

She was referring to the loss of my son, which I address in the book. It’s the reason my farm is named Bittersweet. I told her it took a long time and was a day-to-day process. She then shared with me her own story and explained how it was all the harder because of the circumstances: There were no goodbyes. I understood. I moved around the table to take hold of her. I could recall how it felt when, no matter what words are spoken, it’s not enough. She stood there in my arms and started to sob. My heart remembered those early days.

HOMEGROWN-life-book

I told her our farmers market was the next day and invited her to come. She did. As she walked over to my table, my new lamb Ariel was grazing tiny white clover flowers at our feet. Ariel, a gift to Bittersweet, comes with me to market most weeks so as not to miss her bottle feedings. I bent down and picked up this four-week-old creature and laid her in the young woman’s arms. Ariel nuzzled under the woman’s chin and laid her head on the woman’s shoulder. The woman smiled and said, “This is the first time I’ve felt happy again.” Her mother, who was with her, nodded and smiled.

Farming is therapeutic. It brings a sense of being a part of something none of us understands or can explain—that feeling you get when you see the first seedlings pop their heads above the earth. When the smell of old lilacs wafts through the bedroom window on a late spring day. When a dam, after laboring through the wee morning hours, produces a perfect goat kid. When, 15 minutes later, that kid takes its first steps on brand new wobbly legs. When you’re sitting at the kitchen table, still sticky to the elbows from the brine, sipping a cup of tea and listening to the pop pop pop of lids on bread and butter pickles. (How many jars this year? I lost count.) When you hug a four-week-old lamb and realize for the first time since tragedy struck your life that your heart is still beating.

HOMEGROWN-life-lamb

We are strong, us humans. We dare to dream and hope, love and laugh, even in the face of things that seemingly would beat us to the ground. Farming has brought me a stronger sense of this. It seems—to me, anyway—that people who work the earth or rub shoulders with beasts have a clearer understanding of our resiliency. Farming isn’t just a living; it’s a way of life. And sometimes we get to share that way of life with those not as fortunate to be living it daily.

People’s lives change, sometimes in an instant. But out of those moments, I believe there are opportunities. My own opportunity came on a rainy August day five years ago, as I was headed out to look for sheep. I had bought this piece of property and decided to cover it in lambs. It was Open Farm Day in Maine, an annual event for the past 25 years.

I made a left turn down a long road and ended up walking into a goat barn. That turn and those few steps changed my life. I hope that, as a farmer, I can make some kind of small change in someone else’s life. I hope this young woman will hold onto the happiness she felt hugging a newborn lamb. I hope that, in time, she’ll start to rebuild her life. And I hope that life is filled with love and promise—maybe not in the way she had planned, but in a way that brings healing to her and to those around her. That’s something those of us who call ourselves farmers are privileged to experience every day: hope.

HOMEGROWN-Life-Dyan-profileDyan Redick calls herself “an accidental farmer with a purpose.” Her farm, located on the St. George peninsula of Maine, is a certified Maine State Dairy offering cheeses made with milk from a registered Saanen goat herd, a seasonal farm stand full of wool from a Romney cross flock, goat milk soap, lavender woolens, and whatever else strikes Dyan’s fancy. Bittersweet Heritage Farm is an extension of her belief that we should all gain a better understanding of our food sources, our connection to where we live, and to the animals with whom we share the earth.

ALL PHOTOS: DYAN REDICK