Fancy onion attracts growers

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SALEM, Ohio – Brand names are a powerful thing. Think Cadillac, Rolex, Godiva.
Each exudes class, intrigue and glitz. And people pay big bucks to get these labels on their wheels and wrists.
It’s not just cars and chocolate; brand names are everywhere, even on vegetables.
Simply Sweet is just one onion in a long line behind the well-known Vidalias, Mayans, and Walla Wallas. But the Simply Sweet is so large, sweet and crisp that Pennsylvania farmers are signing on to a growing and marketing network devoted to this designer onion.
Mr. Onion. Mr. Onion, known to those outside the vegetable world as Art King of Valencia, Pa., was one of the first growers to sign up for this new group, the Butler Onion Network.
King’s been growing Simply Sweets at his Harvest Valley Farm the past two seasons and already calls them “the best-tasting onion in the world.”
“If you slice them on a sandwich or slice them on a salad, they’ll make your entire sandwich or salad,” he said.
When word started circulating in 2003 about a network for Simply Sweet growers, King knew he was in.
Nothing is final, but coordinators already have 11 growers’ signatures and hope for more.
Butler Onion Network will be a group of Simply Sweet producers who, as a whole, hope to get better deals on their seeds and plants and higher prices on their harvest.
The biggest advantage, King anticipates, will be the drying and packing facility the network hopes to build.
Drying and packing is the biggest problem for onion growers, he said, because it takes up so much time and the equipment is so expensive.
Marketing 101. An SUV is an SUV. Until someone doubles the price, takes a photo of a rich star behind the wheel, and launches a massive marketing campaign to make that SUV look like the sexiest, classiest vehicle ever designed. The Cadillac Escalade’s appeal is then cinched.
Same is true for onions.
They’re all just onions until farmers begin touting the benefits of one over another: The Simply Sweets, they’re sweet enough to bite right into, big as a baseball, and don’t leave you scrambling for a toothbrush.
So growers begin advertising these benefits and hope Mom and Dad like the onion so much they don’t mind spending an extra quarter a pound.
“Fifty percent of the success is marketing,” King said.
With a group like Butler Onion Network, however, the marketing will go beyond just Mom and Dad. Growers are hoping to catch the eye of wholesalers, too.
With brokers already lined up, members will have a guaranteed outlet for their product.
Higher prices. The idea is these trademarked onions will translate into higher prices.
Last year King sold his Simply Sweets at his farm market for $1.29 a pound and his other onions for 99 cents a pound.
Customers recognize these onions are not like the others, he said.
It’s not just about size and taste, it’s also how they’re raised.
The technique includes black plastic, raised beds and drip irrigation.
And after harvest, things get picky. Not every onion gets the green Simply Sweet sticker. The rules say the onion must be at least 2 1/2 inches and the sugar content 6 percent or higher.
For King, though, his numbers are averaging 4 inches and 7.2 percent – a big, sweet one, he says.
Moving fast. Simply Sweets are still a new thing in Pennsylvania. Researcher Mike Kotz, armed with a Penn State grant, began developing the onion in 1998.
Early on, growers were hesitant. Would this fancy onion fly? Would customers even want it? Would grocers?
So Kotz decided to take two truckloads to Harrisburg and Philadelphia, where customers are more willing to try something new, he said.
“They were gone immediately,” he said.
He quickly formed Cross Creek Farms LLC, and now works with 28 growers from Erie to Lancaster. They grow the Simply Sweets and Kotz handles marketing to chain grocery stores.
Less than seven years after Kotz first developed the Simply Sweet, it is now the only branded vegetable crop in Pennsylvania.
Opportunity. The Butler Onion Network is open to all Simply Sweet growers, not just those in Butler County, said John Albertson, who is manager of the economic development group pushing the network.
Albertson and the Butler County Community Development Corporation encourage producers to sign on to the network.
Although it’s called the onion network, Albertson said he’s keeping the door open for similar projects with other agricultural commodities.
It’s all being done in an attempt to spur the community’s ag economy, he said.
(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 23 or by e-mail at khebert@farmanddairy.com.)

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