Lately I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the entire life of the vegetables that we pack into your CSA boxes every week; from being seeded into the soil, to its demise in your kitchen. It might not be directly apparent, but an enormous amount of time and care go into planning, planting, fertilizing, watering, weeding, harvesting, and packing a single item that is produced on our farm. I decided to take a closer look at onions, something that is called for more often than not, and generally overlooked for being ordinary. What is story behind the Walla-Walla onions that are in your box today?
Your Walla-Walla seed was ordered way back last fall from a seed company by our seed and irrigation manager, Jolene. She maps out the whole farms planting schedule a year or so in advance. Jolene compares records, and draws from her considerable past experience, and then she decides what and when to plant. This year the first week of September was when your Walla-Walla seeds went into the tilled soil. These onions take about one to two weeks to germinate, (or sprout) and then the real work of keeping them alive begins. These onions will over winter outside, which means that they are very vulnerable to the elements, to animals, insects, and disease.
If the small plants don’t succumb to any of the above threats they still must compete with the growth of other plants, namely weeds. Weeds are serious competitors, I talked with Rodrigo, our Field and Production Manager, and he said a crew of six weeded the onion field three times. Each time it took a six day work week, of 12 hour work days. That’s 72 hours per person for each onion weeding session, a total of 1296 man-hours of just weeding! That same crew also fertilizes the field three times, 12 hours a shot, for 36 more hours, all that on top of how long it takes to originally prepare the field. Whew. In addition to keep the onions from rotting this year, Colin has been spraying oxidate, an OMRI Tilth approved spray that basically works like hydrogen peroxide for plants. This spring the plants really needed extra protection from fungi that thrive in the cool, wet weather we’ve been swamped with. Not all of them make it of course, this year we lost about 30% of what we seeded, but that’s a risk that you have to be willing to take.
So after all this, how long does it take our surviving onions to reach maturity? We are just beginning to harvest our first Walla-Walla’s and its now mid-June. In a year with better weather we may have seen them sooner, but as it is its 10 and a half months out from the time that these baby’s went into the ground. For this time, the field doesn’t produce anything else, but it consumes a great deal.
The end of the line comes when we harvest the onions. They come in off the field, we spray them off, and send them down our old conveyer belt to be washed again, and then we pack them away into tubs that either get loaded into trucks, and sent off to market, or we carefully arrange them into CSA tubs and send them off to you. Regardless, when it reaches the consumer, a lot comes down to cost.
So how much did the individual onion seed cost? What about the gas for the tractor that tilled the field? How much did all the labor cost? What are the other farmers charging? How much did we charge last year? How much human thought and energy went into this single onion? And how do you really put a fair price on that? I’ve glossed over the whole process a bit, but I’m willing to bet that the onion that you’ll slice into your pan has a far more detailed and delicate history then you may have thought. People often talk about how expensive organic food can be, but when you think about all that it took to make the delicious, local, pure items in your box, think again, because really, these onions are priceless.
What’s in the box?
Beets—3.00$- try baking the root, and then sautéing the greens the same way you would chard or kale
Kohlrabi—1.00$-see recipe, Kohlrabi has a flavor similar to broccoli, peel it raw, slice and add to salads, or use for dipping into creamy sauces.
Walla Walla Onion—1.50$
If you were shopping at the market, this box would cost—24.25$
Fennel and Kohlrabi Salad
1 medium head of Fennel
1 medium kohlrabi
1 large handful small capers
The juice of 1 large lemon (1/2 is for crisping the fennel)
1 large garlic clove
Twice the amount of extra virgin olive oil (as lemon juice)
1 heaped teaspoon wholegrain mustard
– Slice the fennel as thinly as you can and add to a bowl of cold water and the lemon juice. Slice the kohlrabi and then pare strips off each slice with a vegetable peeler (this is to get wafer thin slices). Add to the bowl with the fennel.
– To make the lemon-caper dressing: Crush the garlic with a generous pinch of sea salt in a pestle and mortar (or in a mug with the base of a wooded spoon). Add some black pepper and a heaped teaspoon of wholegrain mustard. Stir together.
– Add the juice of 1 large lemon, the capers and twice the amount of olive oil. Whisk to mix.
– Drain the water from the salad and place in a bowl . Add the dressing and stir to coat.
1 lb. Swiss chard or spinach, stems trimmed and chopped
3 Tbs. unsalted butter
1/2 lb. potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/4 inch slices
1 tsp. summer savory, minced (optional)
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1/4 cup milk
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/2 cup your choice of cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
– Turn on broiler. Place Swiss chard in a heavy saucepan over medium high heat. Cover and cook 3-6 minutes or until just wilted. Drain, squeezing out excess liquid. Set aside.
– Melt butter in a heavy ovenproof 10 inch skillet over medium high heat. Sauté potatoes and summer savory about 3 minutes or until potatoes are light brown. Stir in onions and sauté another 2 minutes.
– Combine remaining ingredients, except chard and cheese, in a bowl. Stir in chard and grated cheese. Pour over onion potato mixture.
– Cook over low heat about 10 minutes or until top is slightly runny and bottom is set. Place under broiler about 2 minutes until top is set and golden. Cut into wedges to serve.
– Serves 6
How easily happiness begins by dicing onions,
A lump of sweet butter slithers and swirls across the floor of the sauté pan, especially if its errant path crosses a tiny slick of olive oil.
Then a tumble of onions.
ONIONS, by William Mathews