October 2020, Ithaca, NY -- The Lyson Center, in collaboration with the Cornell University Cooperative Enterprise Program, the Community and Regional Development Institute at Cornell, and the Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development, is pleased to announce the launch of the "Agri-Cluster Resilience and Expansion" (ACRE) Program and its pilot application with the Black Dirt onion growers in New York. The project leadership team includes farmers Judy Queale-Dunsmoor of John Dunsmoor Farms, Inc., Chris Pawelski of Pawelski Farms, Bobbie Severson Director of the CU Cooperative Enterprise Program, David Kay of Cornell's Community and Regional Development Institute (CaRDI), and Dr. Philippe Jeanneaux of the France National University of Agronomy and Veterinary. Lyson Center Co-Director Duncan Hilchey is serving as PI and project manager. Funding is being provided by the Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development. Advisors to the project include Cornell Cooperative Extension staff, as well as state and USDA staff. Three Center for Transformative Action board members are also advisors to this project: Dr. Cathy Enz, Professor Emeritus of Strategy and Business Economics, Cornell University; Steve Holzbaur, a value-chain consultant of Ithaca, NY, and Steve Messmer of Messmer Consulting (and Co-Owner of Lively Run Dairy in Interlaken, NY).
This multidisciplinary team of researchers, land-grant programs, farmers, NGOs, and Extension staff will develop the ACRE value-chain planning process in the fall of 2020 (creating an American version of an existing French program call "PERF"), and then pilot the ACRE process working with muck onion growers in New York. The onion growers are considering developing a new midscale value chain that will compete more effectively the market in Northeast and across the U.S. ACRE will help the growers envision and decide whether to create a state-wide farmer-owned onion business.
Pilot Application of ACRE: Black Dirt Onion Value Chain (Winter/Spring, 2021)
As a world-class soil resource, the mucklands or “black dirt” areas of New York State are among the most productive vegetable-growing areas in North America. Constituting about 30,000 acres across four regions,New York’s black dirt regions are the crown jewels of the Northeast region’s farmland inventory. About 7,000 acres are planted in onions, producing over 95% of the region’s onions and generating $40 million for the Upstate New York economy each year.
This scale of production makes these high-quality onions an affordable luxury for everyone. Due to the unique terroir of our muck (the deep, rich organic material, climate, varieties, and cultural practices), New York’s black-dirt-grown onions are famous for their bold, pungent flavor, making them perfect for cooking. As differentiated from “sweet” Vidalia and Walla Walla onions, which are largely eaten fresh in salads, New York black dirt onions have a characteristic “punch,” which become sweet and flavorful when cooked. Their mildly spicy flavor is perfect for our region’s diverse culinary heritage.
However, between adverse weather (several recent 100-year floods), cheap yellow onion imports, and now COVID-19, the black dirt onion community would like to come together to explore the options for capitalizing on its rich heritage and natural and competitive advantages. Each of the main muck onion growing areas in NY will choose two farmer representatives to join the pilot project for a total of 10.
After the holidays and over the winter of 2020-2021, the ACRE Team will work take the onion growers through a strategic business planning process to explore the creation of statewide brand under which all muck onion growers can aggregate, certify, and market black dirt-grown onions. We believe that in working together to create a shared vision and plan, we have a better chance of staving off further decline in the number of black dirt onion farms. Going into the pilot project the growers hope to achieve the following:
Objectives of the Black Dirt Onion Pilot ACRE Project
- Unite the main onion-growing areas of New York State such that they are collaborating to compete more effectively.
- Decommodify the muck-grown onions and end the losing battle of shipping undifferentiated onions to market.
- Re-brand and educate retailers and consumers. Establish the black dirt onion as the world’s highest-quality affordable onion. It is not your ordinary yellow onion.
- Stabilize the number of onion growers in the mucklands. Create opportunities for young farm families.
- Provide a fair return for black dirt onion farmers, families, and laborers.
- Develop trust and transparency among all the stakeholders in the black dirt onion value chain—growers, farmworkers, handlers, retailers, and consumers.
Specific Pilot Project Activities and Timeframe
Convene the Onion Growers in Winter of 2021
The project will convene for a series of meetings in early 2021, either in person (using PPD and social distancing practices) or via teleconference. The pilot project will be hosted by the growers but facilitated by the Agri-Cluster Resilience and Expansion (ACRE) program team, which includes value chain experts from Cornell, Penn State, the USDA, and France. Representatives of other agriculture value-chains around the Northeast will be invited to observe and engage so that may want to undertake their own ACRE project in the future. Key activities will include:
- Reviewing the 100+ year history of black dirt-grown onions, with each region telling its story.
- Conducting a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis of the current onion value chain in New York.
- Developing a shared vision for the future of the black dirt onions.
- Exploring potential strategies for collective action in developing the value chain.
Possible strategies the project may undertake in 2021 include:
- Developing a branded black dirt onion value chain.
- Pursuing a federal marketing order similar to Vidalia and Walla Walla onions.
- Establishing a quality certification program (certification mark).
- Developing a grower-owned enterprise to manage the value chain, including quality control, aggregation, grading, and marketing onions across an expanded trade area.
Evaluation and Ongoing Activity
If our evaluation of this strategic value-chain planning approach is useful to the onion growers, the ACRE Team will proceed with the development of recommendations and training materials for other specialty crop clusters to assist them in adapting to rapidly changing market, labor, and weather conditions. We will pursue additional funding to provide in-service training, the demonstrated demand for which has been established in our current survey.