For farmers and gardeners all over the world, the one subject that elicits the most discussion and the strongest opinions is what “varieties” of crops they grow. Ok, I lied, it’s actually the weather. But after that all-important subject, “varieties” is solidly in second place. And it’s not just fruits and vegetables: there are numerous varieties of grain, beans, nuts and just whatever crop you can think of.
Terra Firma subscribers are very discerning and well-educated eaters. You probably know more vegetable and fruit varieties than most people, other than regular farmers market shoppers. Small farmers like us are strongly motivated educate our customers and develop niche markets to differentiate ourselves.
But for every unique-looking or tasting crop variety, there are ten that look and taste similar or identical. The benefits of each may only be obvious to the farmer or gardener. One might grow well in a hot area and the other in a cool area, for example. There are many variables that plant breeders take into consideration when developing crops: disease and insect resistance, geography, speed of growth, and processor requirements in addition to consumer concerns such as flavor, appearance, culinary considerations and shelf-life.
At Terra Firma, we are constantly reading about and trying out new and better varieties of fruits and vegetables for us and our customers. But we also have certain varieties that are, for us, “perfect”. One of these is the Early Red Burger — the only red onion we have grown for over ten years. (Constrast this with the 5 different varieties of yellow onion we grew this year.) You can probably picture this variety in your head, and you may even still have a few in your kitchen.
We grow several acres of these onions every year, using them for Spring Onions during the late winter and early spring and then letting them cure and dry in May. It’s too hot here to grow red onions through the summer, which is why we don’t have them all year round, but the bulbs do keep well into August. They make strong, healthy plants that produce big, beautiful onions that are mild when eaten raw and amazingly sweet when cooked. Better yet, they are open-pollinated, which means the variety is not “owned” by anyone and the seed is relatively inexpensive.
But profit is a often a good motivator. And in the case of the Early Red Burger, seed companies have decided to grow other, more profitable hybrid varieties instead. We were informed this week that there is no commercial source for the seed this year. The “substitute” red onion seed costs twice as much. But more importantly, no one in our area has ever grown it and even the seed companies are not confident that it will grow and produce well in our area.
In theory, we could save seed from the Early Red Burgers ourselves. But growing onion seed is a complicated and risky long-term process. We would need to save some of the onions we grow, replant them in the fall, and then harvest the seed the next summer. The variety is popular with other local farmers, and we are working together on a plan to have an experienced onion-seed grower produce the seed for us.
For next year, we will still have plenty of our favorite Red Onions — we bought extra seed last year . And we are also testing out the “new and improved” variety. Our first onion transplants, already seeded and growing in the nursery, will go into the ground in September.
Next year, once harvest is complete, we’ll have to evaluate: stick with the tried-and-true variety, or make the switch to the new. And we’ll include you in the decision-making process.