With Off-Season Onions, UNH Study Looks To Expand Growing Season

Jan 12, 2015

UNH research assistant Kaitlyn Orde harvests onions. Low tunnels were installed over the plants in late fall. Onions were harvested from mid-April to early June 2012 and late May to early July 2013.
Credit www.unh.edu

While production of certain types of produce is seasonal, demand doesn’t stop when the growing season ends.

Researchers at the University of New Hampshire may have taken a step toward a solution to that dilemma.

In a study, they successfully grew bulbing onions planted in fall for a spring harvest with the aid of low tunnels.

Becky Sideman is a researcher with the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station.

She joins Morning Edition to talk about her findings.

So why this study?

A lot of farmers are interested in expanding their winter production and winter sales of vegetable crops, as interest in local harvest is increasing, interest in local foods. I work with the UNH Cooperative Extension and through my travels and speaking with farmers, a lot of them were interested in different ways to extend the growing season. This is one of the crops that some growers had been sort of experimenting with. So we saw a need to do a little bit of work.

Let’s explain what low tunnels are.

Low tunnels are actually something that home gardeners might be somewhat familiar with. They’re sort of like miniature greenhouses. They’re not unlike cold frames. They’re small structures. Ours are about four feet tall, made of little bent hoops. You can crawl in them, but mostly people don’t. They’re a way to protect crops into the fall and into the winter. They don’t have any supplemental heat.

What does this mean? What are the implications?

One of the crops that we’ve looked at is onions. Normally in the Northeast, onions are planted in April or May and they’re harvested not until late July or August. We looked at planting them in the fall – September or October – and then protecting them over the winter, and harvesting them in pretty early summer or late spring.  So we were able to harvest mature, beautiful onions in May. So what this means is farmers that have very early farmers markets have something very nice to sell to expand their offerings early in the season.

So we could see some farmers markets with much more local produce in the spring than we do know?

That’s right. That would be idea.

What other produce do you see that might benefit from this?

Well, farmers are experimenting. They’re sort of pushing the envelope always in this area and we see success under low tunnels with very hearty crops like spinach, Swiss chard brassica greens, kale. So there are a lot of possibilities.

We do this work for mostly commercial growers, which is who I work with primarily. But I think one of things that’s most appealing about this project is that this is very low technology devices. Home gardeners could use these, as well. So this really isn’t just for farmers. It’s something gardeners could use.