A-peel-ing pair: Oxbow & High Mowing partner to produce quality onion seeds

This spring, like every spring, our Agriculture Team transplanted thousands of onion seedlings into the farm fields. However, this time, instead of becoming bulbs bound only for Farm Share bags, farmers markets, or the Farm Stand in the fall, these onions are on a year and a half long journey from seed back to seed—destined to enrich farms and gardens throughout North America. 

Following the success of growing badger flame beets for seed, we have joined forces with High Mowing Organic Seeds once again. Our mission: to produce top-quality onion seeds, carefully selecting varieties known for their outstanding performance in organic conditions. This collaborative project not only expands our organization’s reach but also presents us with new challenges and opportunities aligned with our mission to inspire people to embrace healthy, sustainably grown food and preserve our natural resources for future generations.

What’s the benefit of growing plants for seed instead of food?

The seeds we grow will be distributed nationwide to other organic farmers, home gardeners, and seed enthusiasts. Meaning we can increase our reach—providing organic, sustainably grown food beyond our local community.

The project is a long-term investment and a bit of a risk. As far as profitability is concerned, it makes a lot of sense to grow crops that require minimal time and labor, like radishes or salad mixes that can go from seed to harvest in as little as 3-4 weeks. This onion seed venture will take us a year and a half to get from seed to seed, and a lot can go wrong in that time. But we are grateful to have the capacity to take on the risk in hopes of the reward. We’re honored to help empower other growers by providing reliable, organic seeds.

What are the steps of this 1.5 year process?

The process begins during winter when we start trays of onion seeds in the greenhouse. By spring, when the plants reach the thickness of a pencil, we transplant them into plastic mulch, which acts as a weed barrier throughout the extended growing period. Before planting the seedlings approximately 6 inches apart, we trim their roots and leaves and stir them in fish emulsion, an organic fertilizer that gives them a boost of nitrogen. As the onions mature, we continue cultivating them until they develop bulbs (around fall). Then, we harvest and only select bulbs matching desired characteristics for each variety (New York early, Cipollini, and Valencia). We will store the bulbs all winter, maintaining constant cool and dry conditions.

While High Mowing purchases some bulbs, we reserve some for replanting next spring to obtain seeds. A challenge we face is isolating plots of each variety located half a mile apart to prevent cross-pollination. Due to limited space and this distance requirement, we will focus on growing only 1-2 varieties for seed production.

Once the bulbs are planted, each onion will produce a flower stalk that we will meticulously harvest, thresh, and winnow to obtain clean onion seeds!

What are our biggest concerns for the project?

One of our primary concerns is the safe storage of the bulbs throughout the winter season and ensuring optimal conditions until replanting time arrives next spring. However, we are lucky to have a resourceful and creative team led by our Site Manager, Casey. Together, we continue finding innovative solutions to overcome these challenges and preserve the bulbs.

What are our biggest hopes for this project?

What drives us is the desire to cultivate successful crops and deliver great results for our partner. While growing seeds is a newer endeavor for us, we’re encouraged by our achievements cultivating rockwell dry beans, a Pacific Northwest heirloom, and badger flame beets for High Mowing.

We’re excited about continuing and expanding our relationship with High Mowing as we strive to seamlessly integrate growing seeds into our crop plan and aligning the work with our mission. It’s amazing to think about the different people we will help feed beyond our local community in Carnation.