Onions: A tale of scale and market forces

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.

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.

8 Comments

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  1. I love Riverford veg, but mostly order veg ‘ad lib’ rather than as boxes. I would think about going back to your veg boxes if more of them did NOT have onions. Or potatoes/sweet potatoes. They always have seemed like glut items you’re trying to get rid of, I can’t eat the amount provided, and can’t even give them away as no one else wants them either, so quite often they end up in the food recycling bin (no garden to compost). I wonder how many customers feel the same? Maybe the lack of onions will actually make more people try out boxes? An interesting experiment could be to have them as items you have to tack on rather than being in the boxes and see what the demand is…

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    1. I am wondering how to move in as next door neighbour to a potato and onion hater, as these veg are two ofmy favourite add-ons,and I miss them cruelly when they run short.
      Just to show what a difficult balancing act it is to please us all, I guess…..
      (Or that I’m just too veg greedy)
      Is it not possible to declare dislikes?

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    2. Hi Cherry Pie, if you need a hand with managing your Riverford veg box orders do have a chat with their customer services team via live webchat, direct message on Facebook/Twitter or email help@riverford.co.uk

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    3. Sage and onion soup is a great way of using up a surplus of onions. Probably most people thing it’s delicious, and so good for you.
      Potatoes can be included in potato scones, potato pastry, and other recipes, reducing the amount of flour used, which is going to be a great asset in the present global situation.
      Sweet potatoes: agree: I don’t like them! But they can still be mixed with other things, and disguised.

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    4. I make tartiflette when I have a glut of old potatoes. But recently we’ve had a lot of salad potatoes – I could do with more recipes for usung them.
      re onions, a cheese and onion flan is good. Or French onion soup.

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    5. Thanks for the recipe recommendations, but unfortunately onions cause IBS in some of us. And then there are onion haters, which fortunately my husband is since he doesn’t get onions in any food I cook! I can handle small amounts of potatoes and sweet potatoes a couple times a week, but the amount in the boxes far exceeds that. I wish I lived near people who wanted them too!

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    6. I sympathise: several of my relations used to be made very ill by onions. It used to be possible to contact Riverford and register 2 or 3 items that you would always want excluded from standard boxes. I suggest contacting them to check up on this. If you still end up with unwanted items occasionally, what about putting them out on the road or in some acceptable area with a ‘Free to a good home’ message on them? They’ll go like hot cakes, especially if in Riverford packaging, and especially in the present climate where there are vast numbers of people unable to pay to feed their families. Or you could contact your parish council and ask where the nearest food bank is, and take things there, helping impoverished people in your area. Or visit your local church or contact the vicar, who may know exactly who is in desperate need in your area, and s/he may be able to distribute it immediately. Frankly, I usually choose what items I want in my box rather than choosing a standard one.

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    7. Hi Susan, Wicked Leeks is published by Riverford but independent, so not part of the veg box scheme. We know their box planners would love to hear your ideas though, so do share any feedback with help@riverford.co.uk

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