My first commercial onion crop in the 1980s was tended by Henry Clarke, an ox of a man who once milked my father’s cows. He made light work of hand-planting, hoeing, and windrowing the onions into orderly rows to cure in the sun, then bringing them into the barn to be dried with an old grain drier. When he finally retired, Henry took up ballroom dancing, and is still going strong.
Some 35 years on, our onions are doing less well. As the organic market developed, and the scale of production and global trade increased, prices dropped. In an attempt to reduce costs, we moved from planting six seeds in blocks of peat or compost, to planting sets (mini onions grown at high density the previous year), and even trying to grow directly from seeds (which makes controlling weeds difficult).
To reduce weeds and diseases, we moved most of the crop to Sacrewell, our farm in Cambridgeshire, with half the rainfall of Devon. We got pretty good at it up there, but still struggled to make it pay – and have decided to reduce our acreage this year to just what we can sell straight off the fields from July to October.
For the rest of the year, the bulk of the crop will be grown by two specialist, mechanised onion growers. From October to February, Nick Walton of Bagthorpe Farm will grow for us in dry, sandy Norfolk. From March to May, it will be Kees Timmers in Holland, who helped to set up our growers co-operative 20 years ago. Kees, with his lifetime of experience and Dutch perfectionism, has mastered growing from seed and long-term storage. In May and June, when even Kees’s onions start to sprout, we will move to large, sweet Barbosa onions from Spain, before returning to the bunched green onions from our own fields in July.
Market economics and global trade have shaped a pattern of specialised farming at scale, and season-less eating, which it would be hard to fight even if we had a hundred Henrys.
Indeed, in this case, I wouldn’t want to fight it. The sums would be complex but, given the wastage from damage, high costs of drying, and lower yields of our Devon crop, I am not sure that local production would prove to be better for the environment. Instead, I will enjoy the crops from our modern onion specialists – and be glad that Henry got to straighten his back after working in the fields, and dance his latter years away.