Texas A&M AgriLife Research recently received more than $5.2 million in grant funding from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture for a project to address multiple aspects of the southern U.S. onion harvest system. The director for the “Ensuring Future Economic Viability of U.S. Short-Day Onion Production Through Mechanical Harvesting” project will be Subas Malla, Associate Professor of vegetable breeding at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Uvalde.
“The goal of this proposal is to improve profitability and ultimately market share for short-day onions by mechanizing short-day onion harvesting,” Malla says. “We intend to do this through development and selection of cultivars, optimization of production practices, improved harvest systems, and communication of the associated socioeconomic benefits to growers and packers.”
Short-day onions long on production challenges
The majority of onions grown across the southern region of the U.S. are short-day onions. Short-day onions require about 10 to 12 hours of daylight to produce bulbs, while long-day onions require 14 to 16 hours.
According to South Texas Growers Inc., a wholesale nursery, in 2023, the state’s fresh market onion industry — sweet, yellow, red, and white onions combined — grew a total of 75,460 tons across 7,158 acres in the 35 South Texas counties. The average farm-gate value of those onions is around $39 million.
Short-day onions are a high-value vegetable crop in many southern U.S. states, including Texas, but their biology and structure present some difficulties, especially during harvest.
“Dry matter content in the short-day sweet onion is low but the water content is high,” Malla says. “Due to the high water content in the bulb, there is a greater likelihood of bruise damage since the bulbs can’t withstand a higher-pressure impact when harvested. That is why short-day onions have traditionally been harvested by hand.”
In efforts to use mechanized harvesting, too many bulbs were damaged to be acceptable for the fresh market, he said.
“However, these past attempts were limited to substituting the mechanical harvester for manual labor and did not involve a whole-system approach.”
The new project aimed at mechanizing harvest will involve the whole system and include short-day onion areas in Georgia, Texas, New Mexico, and California to represent a full range of growing conditions.
“Limited availability and increasing cost of labor has resulted in decreased U.S. short-day onion production and a lack of competitiveness with foreign sources,” Malla adds. “A viable mechanized harvest system is a high priority for growers and the industry.”
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