AU: Demand for visual perfection causes up to 30% waste of onion crop

Consumer demand for attractive produce means up to 30 per cent of Australia’s onion crop will go to waste, a large grower says.

Meanwhile there are reports of a shortage in South Australia, the country’s largest onion producing state.

South Australian growers are settling into their makeshift homes in the tractor, for a month of seeding, and will supply two-thirds of the onions eaten in Australia next year.

Mundulla farmer and Onions Australia executive, Daniel Mead, grows about 11,5000 tonnes every year and says wastage has little to do with food quality.

"The customer wants the best looking product," he said. "Buyers won’t accept small blemishes and things like that. There is a lot of product that gets wasted and there’s really nothing wrong with it."

Supermarket shelves are now stocked with last season’s crop, which was harvested over the summer months.

Onions Australia has reported a shortage of red onion varieties, as a result of the January heatwave, but Mr Mead says there are ‘plenty around’.

"For this year, as well as the last two years, there’s been an oversupply," he said. "There’s probably a shortage of quality but definitely not a shortage of tonnes. It means it’s a lot harder to sell your product; the supermarkets are setting a standard we have to keep up with .. our sheep get a good feed."

Mother Nature may play a part in shaping the quality of produce, but Mr Mead says supermarkets’ fluctuating prices are hurting farmers the most.

"You could be talking anywhere from $2 for a 20kg bag, to $15 for a 20kg bag," he said. "The previous two years have probably been the worst on record. I think it is having an effect on the quality of people’s product because people are maybe trying to grow products cheaper to be sustainable."

A debate on industry levies is being played out in parliament, with Onions Australia pushing to double its collection to $4 per tonne. Of the $2 per tonne being collected now, $1.60 is spent on research and development.

Mr Mead says the money could be better spent.

"I don’t have any issue with the levy being increased, but I’d probably like to see a higher percentage of that go towards marketing," he said. "We’ve seen it in other industries, like bananas, and it’s taken off. You can’t ask someone to grow less product … but if we work together and can increase consumption then it’s better for everyone."

The lack of rain can be countered through irrigation but Mr Mead says weeks of frost are causing the most damage to young crops.

"Onions don’t get burnt off, as such, they will tend to grow through it but it stunts their growth," he said. "Probably our main concern at this time of year, leading through the next month, is wind.

"We’ve put all our late crops in and they’re very vulnerable to drifting; we want nice calm weather."


Publication date: 9/4/2014