Community Opinion

Upside Down Under

A new kind of harvest…..

Often times when you talk to North Dakota farmers about diversification, it means soybeans, sunflowers, livestock or alfalfa.

By Marvin Baker

But diversification has taken on a whole new meaning in recent years with the introduction of vegetables on a commercial scale, more specifically onions.

Most farmers have already purchased and paid for equipment that is optimized for wheat, barley, flax and canola. To start an onion venture would require new and expensive equipment and, besides, you can’t take your onion harvest to the local grain elevator.

But in 2003, Doug Gullickson stepped outside the box, took a risk and planted 30 acres of pelleted onion seeds and harvested the crop for the first time that same fall.

Gullickson, with his parents Jim and Diana Gullickson, live in Cartright, a small town on the Montana border in McKenzie County.

One of the biggest reasons the Gullicksons went into the onion business is because of irrigation pivots on their property, as well as the potential of using flood irrigation that is often used in Montana and Wyoming.

The Gullicksons didn’t enter into this venture alone. They had the help of Chet Hill, who at the time, worked at the Williston Research Extension Center and was looking for profitable alternatives to cereal grains.

For years Hill, who is now employed with Hefty Seeds in Sidney, Mont., touted alternative crops such as potatoes, onions, carrots and turnips.

One day, he told a crowd of about 100 in the Ernie French Center in Williston that because water rights were getting wrapped up in the California court system, there was strong market potential for those types of root crops in North Dakota and eastern Montana.

Unfortunately, the Gullicksons were the only takers at least in NorthDakota.

Because onion seeds need an optimum 55-degree germination temperature like corn, Hill found the pelleted seed, the coating protecting the seed so it can germinate at a slightly lower temperature.

In addition, Hill helped find the harvest equipment that was rented to get the onions out of the field before the first killing frost.

He also helped the Gullicksons find markets for their produce, according the Billings Gazette.

That started a trend across North Dakota. According to the National Onion Association, North Dakota now ranks 14th in the nation in onion production with 1,374 acres annually representing 47,000 pounds in 2016.

One of the other growers, KIDCO Farms in Steele, also had the option of irrigation pivots. KIDCO, which had land in Kidder and Stutsman counties, was growing 300 acres of onions per year at its peak.

But the caveat with KIDCO, is it moved around to process its onions, providing a higher market value.

It’s quite a change from 20 years ago when the only commercial onions grown in North Dakota were gardeners who took their produce to local grocery stores.

Now, we are 14th in the nation, but we still have a long way to go.

Washington, as you might imagine, leads the nation in onion production with 25,000 acres of onions annually.

Oregon and California follow, but what is interesting about this is eight of the states in the top 20 are northern-tier states like North Dakota. They include Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Iowa.

Georgia, which is fourth on the list of acres, easily out produces Washington by nearly 40 percent. Washington’s yield is 1.7 billion pounds annually while Georgia, which is known for cotton and peanuts, hits the 2.2 billion-pound mark with its Vidalias.

For farmers in an agricultural state like this, it’s just another market option and crop rotation idea. Some of us can remember when honey was a novelty in North Dakota. For several years now, our state has out paced California, Florida and South Dakota in honey production.

To take this a step further, there is now an onion that was developed here in North Dakota, just like the Red Norland potato was in 1957.

David Podoll of Prairie Road Organic Seed in Fullerton spent 20 years developing the Dakota Tears yellow storage onion.

Because it is completely adapted to the northern Great Plains, it’s an excellent choice for North Dakota.

Whether you like onions or not, there is plenty of market potential in the state. There’s also red, hamburger and salad onions and white cooking onions that have a higher value but are a little tougher to grow.