Monday, June 3, 2013

2012 Spring Onion Trial

2012 Spring Onion Trial
On March 19, 2012, the Spring Onion trial was seeded to flats.  Each cell tray was irrigated and then endomychorrizae was added and fish emulsion applied.  On May 5, 2012 the onions were field planted.  The soil in the field was amended for calcium deficiency.  Oyster shell and lime were added and the field was composted prior to planting.  The onions were harvested between July 17 and August 17, 2012.  The onions were sampled and sorted and the best were set aside for replanting for seed.  Our biggest ongoing challenge to onion losses are pocket gophers.   Foothill Farm operates using organic principles, seeds from this trial are available at no charge to other farmers upon request. 
Two torpedo onions were trialed, one from Franchi Seeds and one from a New Zealand seed saver.  Over 2 seasons we discovered that the Franchi torpedo is best planted in the Spring and the NZ is a better overwintered onion.  These onions look and taste almost exactly alike, when their photos are compared Spring to Summer.  Without labels we couldn’t tell them apart. 

The only onions that did well both seasons were Mill Creek, PI 546118 & 546119 and Joseph’s Onion.  Although the overwintered onions were much smaller than the ones harvested during the summer.  These onions produced and did not bolt.

The really big surprise of the entire trial were the Spanish onions.  All of the Spanish onions did poorly when overwintered.  Most bolted as soon as the weather warmed up.  Planted in the Spring, these onions were terrific.  They resulted in huge bulbs.  These are onions A-2 through A-8, #22, and #1. 
Spring Planted Colorado de Conservar

PI 264316 is Colorado de Conservar.  This is an onion that we have high hopes for.  It is rated as a long storage type.  It has good color and flavor.  You can seed the marked difference in it’s bulbing habit between Winter and Summer.  (On the left are the ones planted in spring and harvested in summer and on the right are the ones overwintered and harvested in Spring.Rossa Savonese when planted in winter did not bulb up and looked more like a big red leek, but this onion bulbed beautifully when planted in the spring.
Overwintered Colorado de Conservar

Had we not done these trials, we would never have discovered onions that are better by season. We would like to thank the USDA GRIN program, especially Dr. Larry Robertson for his assistance, Joseph Lofthouse of Utah and Cesar Zapata of New Zealand for their seed contributions to this trial.  All commercial seed was paid for by Foothill Farm.
We started trialing onions in 2011 in the Winter.  I will post those results here as well.  

There are too few public onion breeding programs in the United States and none in California.  There are many private seed companies focused on hybrid seed varieties for agribusiness.  Most commercial fresh market bulb onions are now hybrids.  As a small farm what we need are open pollinated onions that can be grown seed to seed using standard organic methods.

Over the last several years we have seen the seed and plant quality of onions that we grow on the farm from commercial sources diminish.  Although last year, the exceptionally rainy spring may have contributed to problems, some of the seed that we received from seed savers out performed our hybrid and open pollinated commercial seed. 

This led us to suspect that perhaps the problem lies within how the seed is raised.  Is it possible that commercially raised seed with easy access to pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers are at the base of our problem?  Is the problem that all of the open pollinated, organic seeds are virtually all the same variety?  Have they lost so much diversity that they can’t adapt to the environment?  Have they been babied so much that they can’t live under real life field conditions?

As a small organic farm, we have good soil fertility, which we add to each year with compost and cover crops.  We have good pollinators.  We have done field trials and continue every year to experiment and enhance what we know about a crop and how to improve it.  In the last few years we have worked in potatoes, tomatoes, squash, melons and this year we are working on a corn/bean trial.  Of course, no one told us that this would go on forever as this year’s trial leads to next years.  There’s always so much to learn.

Onions are the “B.O” word....Biennial Outcrossers.  So this makes them doubly scary to take on as project.  

What are we looking for?
 A field of onions that will take what life throws at it, monsoon, (don’t laugh we had 4 inches of rain followed by an inch of snow last year), sunstroke (105) in August or like the last two weeks, one week it was 82 degrees and the following week it was 42.
Taste!  (Don’t make me cry)
Yield.  (200 seeds planted, 100 plants, 30 finally made it to the field....this is not good).  
Storability.  I don’t care if the plants all come out of the field in one day,  if they come out over several weeks, hooray.  But please, can they at least last at 40-50 degrees for 3 months?
No early bolting.  This is not a race to get to see who gets to make seeds. 
Needs to do well at latitude 37.

Yes we would settle for a no-name onion grex, we’ll accept all colors and sizes.
So where are we with this project? 

Right now the gophers are working the trial very hard.  I'm losing an onion a day.  The onions are in full to partial flower and the bees are working them.  We discovered two things in this trial.  Onions that we left in the field multiplied.  We divided them and replanted them in the row above.  Right are the onions that we stored in the barn and planted as they began to bolt.  Only some of these divided.  The rest stayed as individual bulbs and flowered.  Our biggest concern at this moment is Cytoplasmic Male Sterility (CMS).

Modern commercial seeds are commonly grown using plants with cytoplasmic male sterility (CMS). Male sterile plants reduce the labor required to make hybrids, but they can cause problems for seed savers because the plants are male sterile in all succeeding generations.  All hybrid onions are male sterile and many open pollinated populations of onions are severely contaminated. The vast majority of commercial onions are male sterile. Onion sterility is due to an interaction between cytoplasmic DNA and nuclear DNA, so it can be reversed with the use of proper pollen donors. 

Since it has taken us almost 3 seasons to get to seed production we are now anxiously inspecting the onions in flower.

 There are several forms of CMS in onion: The flowers look normal, but there is no pollen on the anthers. The flower heads may contain bulbils which is abnormal. Drying seed-heads contain low percentage of pollinated flowers. One form of male sterility in onions is composed of a cytoplasmic factor and a recessive nuclear gene. The sterility can be reversed by pollinating the male sterile plant with a male-fertile plant. Then (some of) the F1 will shed pollen that can be used to pollinate plants with normal cytoplasm. Since onion sterility is subject to Mendelian inheritance as well as maternal inheritance they will undergo routine mass selection to eliminate plants that don't shed pollen, and also to eliminate any flower heads with low seed set or with bulbils.  (Italic text was taken from Joseph Lofthouse at who is a darn fine plant breeder and has provided seed and advice during this trial.


1 comment:

  1. Holly, sorry to hear about your elbow. Bruised not broken, I do hope!

    I am growing out some Mako (Hungarian) onions for seed this year. I hate to promise anything until I actually have the seedheads to shake into a paper bag, but they are swelling up nicely and looking good. This one stored like a rock last year. I STILL HAVE SOME IN OUR COLD CELLAR that I am using.

    They were so pungent as to be almost nasty straight out of the garden, but turned into a good standard cooking onion once stored.

    Seed? Insha'Allah, of course.