Red onion acreage has been expanding steadily. Certainly, in the last five years, growers have gained more from red onions than yellow ones. Is there a limit? No, says Jaap Jonker at De Groot en Slot. Yes, argue the grower Menno Torringa and the processor Jan Franje. “There’s still good demand for red onions, but the smaller types are at the tipping point,” Franje says.

In the Dutch village of Leens, growers Menno and Jesse Torringa produced 14 hectares of Red Tide last year. They sold some off-farm and put the rest in crate storage. Demand for red has always been good, but the tide appears to be turning this year, Menno says. “It seems to me that there's more demand for yellow than red. We had to work harder in 2022 to sell our onions off-farm. Just look at the onion price quotes right now [in mid-September – ed.]. Red onions are €25 to €30. That’s a good price, but the mood is lacklustre. Yellow onions are easier to sell right now. I think red acreage is reaching its limit.”

Crate storage

That won’t stop the Torringas growing red onions again next year, though, Menno adds. They’re sticking with their current strategy. The farm has space for crate storage, and it’s set up to grow red onions. “Twenty years ago, we also grew onions for a couple of years – first yellow, and then red the next year. Red onions were a niche product back then, and they did great on our soil, better than yellow. We didn't have crate storage back then, and we sold them off-farm.” Despite the positive experience, Torringa stopped growing onions after a few years, mainly because of a lack of storage options. They were also hit with neck rot in the final year.

After they built a new shed with crate storage in 2016, though, the opportunity arose to resume growing red onions. “Red ones are softer than yellow ones,” Menno says. “You have to store them in crates to prevent damage. And the processors like them delivered in crates. The advantage of crate storage is that you can be flexible: you can deliver one or two crates or get everything picked up.” Menno – who uses Profytodsd’s crop advisors – prefers Red Tide over Red Baron because of the variety’s storability. “Red Tide has good quality even under tough harvesting conditions. We store the onions when they're green and use a drying wall with heaters to dry the crates. It always works well.”

Feeding the world

De Groot en Slot’s Benelux sales manager, Jaap Jonker, meanwhile, predicts that the market for red onions will keep expanding. The global population continues to grow, and onions are a popular vegetable, he points out. “Around the world, red onions are the most grown and consumed. When pink ones aren’t available, big onion-eating countries like India and Bangladesh use red. Every year we keep thinking we’ve hit the limit for red, and then it turns out we haven’t. Consumption just keeps rising, and there’s a healthy relationship between supply and demand.” Demand for Dutch onions continues to rise, says Jonker. “We export more onions every year, and red are systematically performing better than yellow. So I don’t see any limit to red for the time being.”

Bejo/De Groot en Slot sells its range of red onions around the world. The company always tries to offer several varieties for every day length, Jonker says. “Lately there’s been a trend of growers spreading risk by cultivating red onions along with yellow ones. But red onions are a bit more delicate than yellow, so storing them in crates is recommended. Not every grower is equipped to do that.” Yields per hectare are no longer increasing, but varieties are getting better, the sales manager says. “You can clearly see a trend of people wanting hybrids like Red Tide and Red Ray. These onions are more uniform, ripen earlier, and can be stored longer. Quality is guaranteed. That gives growers security.”

Jonker doesn’t believe the ongoing increase in onion acreage shows any sign of ending. “Definitely not with the weather extremes we’re dealing with all over the world. Yields are falling because of excesses like floods and extreme heat happening while the onions are trying to grow. And that’s changing the market. Because whatever happens, the global population needs to be fed.”

Price changes

Franje Onions is a modern Dutch family farm with decades of experience in buying, selling, sorting, storing and packing onions. Owner Jan Franje takes the view that red onion acreage is reaching a limit, but he isn’t worried: “As long as there’s demand there’ll be a market.” Red onions still cost more than yellow, but that’s changing, Franje says. “This season small red onions are cheaper than small yellow ones. The onions are smaller this year because of the drought, and there’s plenty of product on the market. That makes it harder to find sales channels for the 40-to-60mm size range.”

Buyers are more interested in larger (60mm+) red onions, Franje says. Size is key in red onions. “There’s always more demand for the bigger ones. Supply is lagging behind demand this season, so bigger onions are fetching higher prices.” But business depends on what happens around the world, he adds. “A country could open up tomorrow that mainly wants small red onions. It’s about which countries want which kind and where the shortages are. Some countries are still fine with small red onions, although that’s getting less common.”

Franje still thinks that the world will always need quality red onions. “Red Tide, Red Baron and Redlander from Bejo/De Groot en Slot are good varieties, as long as they’re grown in good soil and lifted at the right time, when the tops are still partly green. Skin quallity is really important for export. Red onions need a good jacket.”