Strawberry Onions: Hillsborough's Best Kept Secret?
"Strawberry onions," a flavorful supplement to Hillsborough County's wintertime strawberry crop, have quite a following.
The name is a misnomer. The rows of mild-variety onions at each end of many strawberry fields have nothing to do with strawberries, other than they benefit from the plentiful water and fertilizer that farmers use to bolster their crops of red berries.
The onions soak up water and nutrients like sponges. They are simply large, mild onions great for making onion rings, casseroles, and other cuisine. A thick slice of one of these softball-sized vegetables does wonders for a hamburger, along with lettuce, tomato, and a pickle.
So what are onions doing in strawberry fields?
Farm workers prefer to move between rows when harvesting berries, turning from side to side to pluck fruit from the low-lying plants. A field's outside rows don't accommodate this technique, so farmers for decades have planted rows of onions as bookends of sorts to their strawberry plants.
Years ago, farmers also believed onions helped ward off insects, rodents, and other creatures. That proved not to be true. But by then onions were as much a part of strawberry farming as sunshine and rain.
Not all strawberry farmers follow the practice, but most do.
The onions, meanwhile, have attained their own fabled status.
Farmers keep them, or give the onions to field workers. They are available in bins at local farm stands. Some people are so smitten with the onions' flavor that they arrange for shipments to their homes in distant states.
Parkesdale Market sells strawberry onions, and it sends the tasty bulbs to people in Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, and even Maine and Oregon. "It's a very sweet, sweet onion," says Jim Meeks of Parkesdale. "Once people try one, they usually come back for more."
The onions have been around for decades, but widespread demand for them began only about 10 years ago. While farmers used to plant them only at the perimeter of rows of strawberries, a few fields now are devoted entirely to onions.
While strawberries remain the main draw at Parkesdale Market, customers also favor their namesake onions. "They don't line up like they do for the strawberry shortcakes," Jim says, "but people do like them."