AU: 'Temperamental' onions thriving in the Top End

Onions can be a difficult crop to grow in the tropics, but after 14 years of trial and error, one Top End farmer has finally worked out the secret.

John Shaw has been slowly expanding his commercial onion crop each year, and this season has planted 20 hectares on his property in the Venn Horticultural District, 30 kilometres south of Katherine, Northern Territory.

He says getting the crop to grow well, and ultimately turn a profit, has been a very painstaking process.

"They're a bit tricky, but we've persevered and kept at it for a while and we sort of get a crop every year" he said. "Onions are a little bit temperamental, but they're all very suited to different latitudes, so there's variety screening, and timing is a bit tricky. We lost money on it for years, the first five years we didn't make a cracker.
It's just one of those things, you have to be patient and wait until next year. Patience isn't generally one of my better qualities so maybe it's stubbornness!"

Most of his onions are sold into the eastern states, where there's strong competition from other growing regions.

Mr Shaw says he's kept fairly quiet about his onion operation over the years, to prevent more competition emerging in the Northern Territory.

"There's only a very short window for onions here because we're competing with the big guys down south," he said. "It's only short and doesn't need a lot of onions to fill, it just needs a few. So we've just stuck at it and kept to ourselves a bit with it."

Mr Shaw says although a huge amount of time and effort is required to grow the crop, he hopes to continue producing onions into the future.

"Look I think so, we've got the machinery now, we've got a good harvester and planter," he said. "We've got the gear to do it, so it's just the price point thing, we'll have to see if there's a window left."

Interest in onions has also been building further south in the Alice Springs region, where a trial crop was planted last year.


Publication date: 6/26/2014