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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

News Center

Onion Research Helps Stretch Growing Season

LAS CRUCES -- In June and July, southern New Mexico satisfies about 60 percent of the nation's appetite for fresh market onions.

The bustle of field work and steady stream of trucks from fields to packing houses peaks in late June and early July as fall-planted onions mature. Unlike onions grown in northern states, which are stored over the winter, New Mexico's crop goes straight to stores, mostly in southern and eastern states.

Growers like Joe Nelson of Anthony, N.M., use a number of varieties, both seeded and transplanted, to stretch the season and marketing window.

"Probably 90 percent of the onions I grow are from varieties released by New Mexico State University," Nelson said. "They have a wide range of early to later-maturing varieties, as well as several sweet onion varieties. They're excellent growing onions and excellent eating onions."

This year, Nelson is pleased with NuMex Luna, a yellow onion from NMSU that's helping him fill a market gap as the fall-planted onion harvest tapers off and spring-planted varieties mature.

To fill a growing need for onions that can be harvested at different times, onion breeder Chris Cramer with NMSU's Agricultural Experiment Station is busy with fieldwork, too.

At NMSU's Fabian Garcia Science Center in Las Cruces, Cramer has more than 600 mesh-covered cages of various sizes to isolate breeding stock.

In fields nearby, the most promising varieties are grown to see which will perform best.

"NMSU is working on releasing a number of varieties that will give the grower continuous varieties from late May all the way through August," Cramer said.

It's a job that requires considerable patience. A biennial crop, onions form a bulb in their first year of growth and send up a flowering stalk the second year, when seed can be harvested for breeding.

"To develop an open-pollinated variety takes from eight to 10 years from the time the cross is made until the variety is actually released," Cramer said. "We're also working on developing hybrids, which can take up to 15 years of work."

In the largest, 60-foot enclosures, NMSU produces a supply of foundation seed to keep varieties true to type and make continual improvements in each line.

Different varieties offer special traits, such as being perfect for onion rings, as well as desirable quality characteristics and disease resistance.

Another priority for NMSU researchers is adding to their sweet onion offerings. Though they aren't as well known as Georgia's Vidalias, NuMex Sweet onions can hold their own in quality. The state's sunny, clear days produce large, high-quality bulbs.

"Normally, our onions have the same low pungency as other sweet onions from Georgia or South Texas or California," Cramer said. "Our onions usually are larger, have better quality, and fewer disease problems and usually reach the market in better shape than those from other places."

To get consumers clamoring for NuMex sweets, the state's onion commission launched a marketing campaign, complete with a distinctive NuMex Sweet box and tiny turquoise and red stickers to label each onion.

Finding sweet onions in New Mexico grocery stores can be difficult because national chains buy from large suppliers, but there are exceptions.

Nelson spotted a locally grown onion recently in an Anthony grocery store. "I was very excited to see the box sitting there with NuMex Sweet onions in the bin," he said.

More varieties and better marketing can only enhance the value of New Mexico's onion crop, valued at $43 million in 1997, making onions the state's third-most valuable crop, behind alfalfa and chile.