16 March 2001

Home-grown onions set to gain from assurance

By Edward Long

CLEANING and grading of the UKs biggest ever tonnage of home-grown onion sets is almost complete, in time for commercial ware crop planting.

Sets already account for 35% of the 8000ha (20,000 acres) onion crop, with the share increasing each year at the expense of the drilled area.

More reliable establishment, lower wind blow losses early in the season, and less need for herbicides and irrigation are the main reasons for their rising popularity.

Traditional Stuttgarter sets mature about a month earlier than the Rijnsberger drilled crop so are vital in areas on the climatic limits for onion growing, such as Yorks.

"Until recently all sets planted in the UK were sourced from Holland. But quality was variable and bulk loads meant tracing the source of production was impossible," says Tom Will of Norfolk-based Vegetable Consultancy Services.

"In 1997 two East Anglian growers realising the need for locally-sourced sets with full traceability set up a small production unit. Initially just 2.5 acres of Sturon were grown, but it was the start of UK sets production."

That has since developed into the English Set Company. Last season 600t of sets, sufficient to plant 600ha (1500 acres) of commercial crop, were harvested from 16ha (40 acres) grown on East Anglian farms away from the main commercial ware production areas.

The ESCs Mike Higson says previous attempts to produce home-grown sets failed as they were difficult to clean after harvest.

"But we use the UKs only fluid sand separator to remove stones and rubbish without the need for water," he points out. "It was developed in Israel where water is scarce and is one of only two operating in Europe. The advantage of a dry-cleaning the crop is that rots are not encouraged."

Sets of four spring varieties, Sturon, Jetset, Jagro and Marimba, are currently available in three size grades, 10-14mm, 14-17mm and 17-21mm. Demand is so strong that the area drilled to produce sets will be increased by 20%. &#42

Quality control

NIAB started a quality assurance scheme for home-grown sets last February, using intensive GPS-guided field sampling to declare all sets free of stem eelworm and white rot infection. The sets are produced on virgin land, so if they are to be planted on clean land they require no fungicide seed-dressing. With no chemical check crops are more vigorous.