Friday, August 23, 2019

Onions, High Tunnels and Choices

 We made the choice to expand our onion production in 2019 with the understanding that there was the likelihood that we would have some bulk orders for onions if we could successfully grow them.  After all, we have had pretty good success for each of the past several years, it seemed like a good bet.  Now, here we are in August after planting 10,000-12,000 onion plants this Spring and we're starting to bring in the onions. 

Ailsa Craig Exhibition sweet onions
 The first thing everyone should understand is that when we plant 10,000 onions, we do NOT expect to harvest 10,000 onions.  Some plants will not survive the cultivation process and some just won't produce a good onion.  We also realize that some of the varieties we choose will not provide us with consistent sizes or shapes.  This has not been a big deal because our CSA customers often have different ideas about what an optimal size for an onion should be.  The range in production doesn't hurt when your customer base likes some of the size options.
White Wing onions
This season saw a very difficult planting period with mucky soil conditions.  The difficulty is that if you want good onions in Iowa, you need to get them in early.  Our region tends to grow long-day length type onions better than short-day or day length neutral onions.  Essentially, long day onions are triggered to bulb by daylight periods of 14 to 15 hours.  So, we need to get onions in the ground in time so they can establish a healthy plant BEFORE they worry about bulbing out.  Typically, the more established the plants are prior to reaching the daylight threshold, the better the onion crop is going to be for consistent and larger sized onions.

So, what happened this year?  We got onions in at different points in time depending on when we were able to 'mud them in.'  The poor early soil conditions have led to inconsistent production.  We've got lots of onions, but the sizes are all over the map.  The taste has been good and we'll see how they store.  We certainly can't say that we are disappointed because there is some good onion production here.  But, it's not the picture of perfection we had in our heads.  Even so, it is marketable - so now we need to sell it all.  The whole plan falls to the ground if we can't move them!
Valhalla in late July
 The high tunnels, once again, were indirectly impacted by the early season weather.  The best laid plans for planting order and location never seem to be implemented because we are always making adjustments for the weather - even when we are inside buildings!

How does that work, you ask?  Well...  if you can't get a crop in the ground outside, you might press some of the inside space into service for something you were not planning.  And, if you were planning on moving a building, but it is too wet or windy to do so, you have to delay that move.  It is what it is and we go through this at some level every season.

If you look at the picture of Valhalla above, you will see a good deal of open space.  That is not the way it was supposed to be at this point, but, we've moved a few things around and they are now slotted for some late Summer plantings to fill in some of our Fall - early winter crop needs.  The trick is that we want the tomatoes, peppers and other crops already in there to stretch their production into late October (and maybe early November) so we have to select compatible crops that will germinate in the conditions found in the building in August.  It's a giant jigsaw puzzle.  Good thing we like puzzles.

Eden in late July
Eden is much more crowded than Valhalla for a couple of reasons.  First, we will move the building to the West position in October - we think.  Remember the adjustments and conditions issues that occur in the Spring?  Well, Fall has been an adventure the last couple of years.  Remember the continuous rain last September, for example?

We made a choice this year to hill up the planting space in Eden to deal with the issue of torrential rains flooding out crops in this building.  You might be able to see what I mean if you click on the picture to make a larger version.  The good news is that the couple of heavy rains that got Eden wet inside the building this year did not impact the crops.  The bad news?  Well, things in hilled beds dry out faster.  And, during normal weather, high tunnels are DRY areas that require irrigation.  Every choice has its consequences.

Regardless of the issues, we can say that our efforts have led to success.  The early Summer lettuce crop (that grows up in the shade of the young tomatoes) was great - except we couldn't sell it all when it was ready.  The birds were happy.  The tomatoes are looking very good, the peppers have already produced above prior year levels and beans are doing well.  The melons are about on par for a normal season and the basil looks great.  We do feel as if we lost some flexibility with this model as it doesn't really support some of the crops we traditionally have grown in Eden.  But, it all worked well enough that we can make adjustments rather than abandoning the whole thing.

And there you have it... onions, high tunnels and choices.

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