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Weather puts dent in growers' sweet-onion plans

Brian C. Rittmeyer
| Monday, June 30, 2003

Growers looking to raise Pennsylvania's status among sweet-onion producing states are hoping that the start of summer means they are leaving a cold, wet and cloudy spring behind.

Triggered by the change in the length of the day, the start of summer is when the onion plant shuts down its top growth and begins growing its underground bulb.

"If we get some warm weather, the onions are going to play catch-up, and it will be a delayed harvest," said Mike Kotz, owner of Cross Creek Farms in Washington County, where the first 'Pennsylvania Simply Sweet' onions were planted in 2001. "Not everyone is sure about that. There is some nervousness about this crop."

Despite a tripling of acres planted and a doubling of the number of growers, about 20 percent to 25 percent of this year's anticipated crop of the 'Simply Sweet' onions was lost because of extended cold and rainy conditions during planting, Kotz said. The growth of surviving plants has been stunted, and disease and fungus are concerns.

"This season has really been a rough one. There's plenty of rain, but there's too much rain," Kotz said.

Planting was delayed a month from April into May, and Mike Orzolek, a professor of vegetable crops at Penn State University, said the harvest also will be delayed about a month into August.

"Everything is being blown off schedule because of the crappy weather," Orzolek said. "This year is not going to allow for expansion. We're not going to have a bumper crop. We're going to have an average crop at this point."

The loss was greatest in Erie County, where, in addition to weather problems, some 200 to 300 seagulls descended on a field.

"Maybe it was curiosity. They didn't eat the onions. They pulled the plants out of the ground and dropped them," Kotz said.

Pennsylvania ranks 45th among the 50 states for onion production. The 'Pennsylvania Simply Sweet' onion crop has grown from one acre in Washington County two years ago to about 15 acres in Berks, Butler, Centre, Erie and Lancaster counties. Independent producers in Washington County also are growing some of the onions.

The soon-to-be-branded 'Pennsylvania Simply Sweet' faces competition from established sweet onion varieties, such as the Georgia 'Vidalia,' 'Texas Sweet' and Washington state 'Walla Walla.'

Butler County potato farmer Francis Griffin is growing the onion on about 1.3 acres of his 120-acre farm in Prospect. It's the first time Griffin, 82, and a farmer for 65 years, has grown onions outside of his garden.

"It sounded interesting," he said. "The thing about onions as opposed to any other crop is they're a pretty sure crop."

Despite hardship elsewhere, Griffin said, his crop is doing well. He hopes to get about 25,000 pounds of onions from the 60,000 plants.

While far from taking on the 'Vidalia,' Kotz said production of the 'Simply Sweet' next year could exceed the 'Michigan AmeriSweet' on the bottom of the sweet-onion list.

"We're easily within rifle shot of that, if we can just get growers trained," he said.

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