Writer: D'Lyn Ford
LAS CRUCES - Think ahead. That's the motto of New Mexico State University's onion breeders as they try to keep up with the needs of New Mexico's growers and deal with the crop's long growing cycle.
"Onions are a biennial crop," said Chris Cramer, an onion breeder with NMSU's Agricultural Experiment Station (AES). "So it takes a long time to develop cultivars, because a single growth cycle takes two years compared to some crops that can have three generations in a year."
Some of the onion cultivars or varieties released recently have taken more than a decade to develop. "It takes some foresight to think about what growers are going to need in 10 to 15 years," Cramer said.
The growers need two of the new varieties now to help extend the sweet onion harvest. NuMex Freedom and NuMex Arthur were developed by Marisa Wall, a postharvest physiologist, and Joe Corgan, a retired AES onion breeder.
New Mexico's sweet onion harvest traditionally lasts from late May until the second or third week in June. With the two new varieties, it will extend until late July. "That's quite an accomplishment that gives growers lots of options," Cramer said. Two other new varieties - NuMex Chaco and NuMex Snowball - were developed by Corgan and Cramer.
NuMex Chaco is planted in the fall for harvest in late May. It has a high percentage of single centers, which is important for onion ring processing.
"Onion ring processors have been asking for a variety that will mature in that time slot," Cramer said. "With this onion, they'll be coming into New Mexico earlier and taking more fresh onions instead of using storage onions." NuMex Snowball is a spring-planted, white variety that matures in late July, when there aren't many other white onion options. Foundation seed for the new varieties will be available in the fall, which means commercial seed will be available in two to three years. Meanwhile, Cramer and Wall are always on the lookout for quality onion varieties for the state's growers.
"We're testing cultivars released from our program and experimental cultivars to see how well they are adapted to growing here in southern New Mexico," Cramer said. "They have to be high-yielding and high-quality, and they must have good resistance to diseases such as pink root and fusarium."
The researchers are currently evaluating about 40 fall-planted, 25 transplanted and 50 spring-planted varieties.
"This year's onion research fields are looking good," Cramer said. "I think we're about a week ahead of last year, because we had a warm winter and the plants put on a lot of growth." Growers, seed sales representatives and others will get two chances to check out NMSU's onion variety trials this season. Field days to spotlight fall-planted and spring-planted onions will be held June 13 and July 13, respectively. Both events will begin at 9 a.m. at the Fabian Garcia Research Center on University Avenue.
Growers also can get the latest onion information from two publications available from NMSU's agricultural communications department. Research Report 739 details the 1998-1999 variety trials, while Circular 563 covers bulb onion culture and management.
Cramer said the updated circular details how best to grow onions in southern New Mexico. "Many growers have switched to drip irrigation since the original publication was put out about 15 years ago," he said.
Drip irrigation has made growing onions more precise. "You can incorporate fertilizers, insecticides and pesticides into the irrigation water, so you get better growth and higher yields while using less water, fertilizer and other inputs."
To order free copies of the publications, call 505-646-2701.
© 2013 New Mexico State University Board of Regents
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