(May 13) Efficiency can be a marketing tool, and that’s why some growers and shippers of onions are seeing some of their colleagues try mechanized harvesting, rather than hiring a veritable army of laborers to pick the crop by hand.

Those who can pull it off can save considerable costs on labor, marketing agents note.

However, not all onions are suitable to mechanized harvesting, they say.

“Short-day onions have a lot of water content — that’s why they’re sweet,” said Don Ed Holmes, owner of The Onion House LLC, Weslaco, Texas. “But, it also makes them soft, and they bruise easier.”

Machines used for harvesting onions are, by their nature, tough on onions, Holmes said.

“The machine harvester, from the handling aspect, it’s rougher on it and bounces it into a truck,” he said. “The winter onions have very little water — that’s why they’re so hot. They’re hard as a rock. You throw one of ours against a wall, and it’ll splatter like a tomato so the internal qualities of our onions are unsuited for mechanical harvest.”

Not that his company isn’t interested in finding a solution to that problem, Holmes noted.

“We’re starting to look at breeding to make some of these sweet onions tougher so we can mechanical harvest them,” he said.

Some in his area have already toyed with some mechanized harvesting processes, Holmes said.

“One guy started using machines with some success,” he said. “Hopefully, we can adapt some of that stuff to our program, so we can switch over and o more machine harvesting.”

Chris Eddy, sales manager of the McAllen office of Duda Farm Fresh Foods Inc., Oviedo, Fla., said he had seen it tried in southern Texas, as well.

“There are guys who have been trying that here for years and years,” Eddy said. “There are several factors involved. The biggest factor is, those guys up north have that hard, firm, very durable darker-skinned onion that can withstand the harvester.”

The risks are far greater with Texas-grown product, Eddy said.

“When you get here, the onions are softer and more tender and much more susceptible to the mechanical damage,” he said. “Even if they don’t get cut, the machine will ding them, which will cause quality problems down the line.”

But some growers, it seems, are always willing to risk it, Eddy said.

“There’s always somebody trying it, always at least trying to figure out how to mechanically harvest,” he said. “The first guy to figure out how to do that successfully is gong to revolutionize the industry in this part of the country.”

Chris Franzoy, owner of Hatch, N.M.-based onion growing and shipping operation Young Guns Inc., said his company harvests all onions by hand — for now.

“We are experimenting with mechanical harvesting, but we have not committed to it yet,” he said. “It shows promise. Every year, they break new ground in regard to the performance of the equipment. It’s just not quite there yet.”

When the final product’s looks matter, however, mechanized processes are of little use, Franzoy said.