Growing Sweet Onions on North Carolina’s Inner Banks
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. This age-old proverb is a fitting motto for the Peed family, who first started growing yellow onions on their farm, Flatland Ag, Inc., near Aurora in the early ’90s. Though the Peeds had been farming other crops, such as corn and soybeans, for more than 100 years, this one posed more challenges than they’d encountered before: weed control, lack of proper machinery and labor-intensive hand-harvesting, to name a few. So they put onions on the back burner for a while – with every intention of trying again.
“We said we’d get back into them when we had the capital to buy the equipment for a mechanical harvest,” says Jeff Peed, a fourth-generation farmer who runs the family operation with his wife, Barbara; his father, Floyd; and his brother, Scott.
When they planted onions again in 2008, their circumstances looked much different. It was a big investment up front to obtain the planting and harvesting equipment necessary to have a successful onion crop, Peed says, yet it was the only way to be successful. “There’s such a top-to-bottom integration of parts, you can’t just pick one part and say, ‘I’ll start by getting this,’ ” he says.
Inner Banks Soil Ideal for Onions
Just Freeze It
Did you know you can freeze onions? Simply stick the entire onion in the freezer, and when you’re ready to use it, let it thaw for five or 10 minutes before slicing. Peed’s favorite lunch begins with caramelizing a few pieces of onion, frying up a piece of Spam until crispy and piling them onto a sandwich with some good mayonnaise. “Nobody else eats it,” he says, “but I like it.”
The Peed family first got the idea to plant onions from a North Carolina State University researcher named Doug Sanders, who thought yellow onions would grow well in the rich soil of eastern North Carolina. Sanders obtained seed he believed could work there, and about a dozen farmers in the area tried them.
“Finding varieties that would overwinter here was the most difficult part,” Peed says, “but he was right – you can grow good onions here.”
The all-purpose Tough Ball onion, “a sweet onion with flavor,” Peed says, is the main variety they grow at Flatland Ag, Inc. They plant in late September and harvest in late May or early June, so the onions winter in the ground. Ideal growing conditions are a warm fall so they get off to a good start and no temperatures below 25 degrees. Aurora’s coastal location usually means the weather doesn’t get too cold, though it doesn’t always work out that way. Peed says he remembers having a dozen or so test plots the first year to see what would survive the winter.
“It was frustrating at first,” he says. “We’d get one hard freeze and the next day, [the onions] would be all flopped over.”
The Difficulty of Growing Onions
Growing onions is “not for the faint of heart,” Peed says, as he knows firsthand. Though the crop is in the ground 75 percent of the year, there’s not a month that goes by that they aren’t in the field tending to the onions.
“We call them our baby crop because they take nine months to mature,” Peed says.
To get ready for planting in the fall, they first till the soil until it’s very fine, then plant eight lines of onions using a Beck Precision Planter sourced from Oregon. Pulled behind a tractor, the planter does three beds at a time – it’s slow going, taking about three days to seed 75 acres of onions. The Peeds use direct seed (which makes up about half of their total growing cost), and each one is spaced 4 inches apart and staggered.
A weed-control program is a crucial part of the growing process, which can be quite challenging, partially because chemicals are less effective in the winter.
Outrageous Onion Recipes
Harvest time is signified when about half of the onion tops have fallen over. The Peeds use a special piece of equipment that looks similar to a potato harvester, but doesn’t go in the ground. It lifts the onions up, packs the soil back down and lays them on top of the bed to dry for two or three days. Then they pick them up with the harvester and put them in box bins to cure (dry) the necks of the onions so they don’t rot. Once the onions are properly dry, they run through a grading line, are dumped into a hopper that slices off the remaining tops, and are brushed and sized to be bagged.
Marketing North Carolina Sweet Onions
A good yield is about 800 50-pound bags to the acre, Peed says, though they’ve been as high as 1,800 bags. He estimates the very top end of their potential yield, provided everything goes well during a year, is about 2,000 bags to the acre.
Yet as good as a crop might be, it’s nothing without a way to get the product into stores. That’s where L&M Companies in Raleigh comes in. The Peed family first began working with them in 2008 to repack and distribute their onions to retailers, and now their product can be found up and down the East Coast, from Massachusetts to Florida, and as far west as Ohio. They pack 10-pound bags for local retail, 50-pound bags that go to produce distributors for restaurants and 2,000-pound totes that are repacked for Walmart and Food Lion stores.
“The first few years, it was a lot of calling people asking, ‘Don’t you want to try a North Carolina onion?’ ” Peed says. “But now they’re calling us.”
– Kelsey Ogletree