Changes in onion cultural practices have helped New York growers increase profitability while protecting fragile muck soil.
Several of the Cornell University research studies were funded by Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grants, according to a news release.
In one study, Extension vegetable specialist Christine Hoepting found that changing plant spacing to 4 inches reduced yield losses from bacterial rot by 63 percent compared with growers' standard treatment.
The practice could net growers up to $258 per 100-foot bed for fresh-market onions.
One grower who's adopted the plant spacing, Matt Mortellaro of Elba, N.Y., said it may create smaller bulb sizes that bring a lower prices.
But the increased quality more than makes up for it.
Using alternatives to black plastic mulch—which absorbs sunlight to heat the soil—also can reduce disease pressure.
Warmer soils provide conditions conducive to bacterial growth.
Using conventional tillage practices in muck soil can create wind-erosion problems, since the soil is friable.
During the spring when the onions are small, drifting muck can decapitate the plants.
Some farmers try to protect onion fields by planting barley windbreaks between onion rows.
But the young onions are vulnerable to damage until the barley has grown tall enough to offer protection.
Hoepting compared minimum-tillage systems that left fall-planted grain stubble on the ground with conventional systems, where the residue was plowed under.
Leaving the plant material helped prevent erosion and netted growers 9 percent more profit than conventional systems.
The practice may not be for every field, Mortellaro said. But he's successfully using it on 30 acres of wind-exposed ground.