Though the century variety continues to stay on top in Peru, growers are trying other varieties, including red onions.
Though the century variety continues to stay on top in Peru, growers are trying other varieties, including red onions.

The century soldiers on as the dominant sweet onion variety in Peru, but other varieties are being developed, marketers say.

Key Peru SA, which manages business operations in Lima for sister company Keystone Fruit Marketing Inc., Greencastle, Pa., is developing a new sweet red onion variety, the company said in a news release.

Key Peru focuses primarily on the production, packaging and export of sweet yellow onions, with a yearly volume of about 25,000 tons per year. The company said it also has an ongoing project to produce and market sweet red onions.

Roberto Vargas Monge, the company’s commercial manager, said the company has two farms in Peru — one in Ica and another in Huaura — where they already had tested 60 red onion varieties. 

“Key Peru is testing different codes of reds with a very selective group of clients through Keystone’s research team,” he said. “So far, we haven’t found the right/final variety that could secure a consistent program over the years yet. Our investigation is still ongoing as we are still testing transit times and shelf life.”

Key Peru’s main export markets are the U.S., Central America and Europe. The company said it would soon start shipping to Japan.

“We’ve also noted that domestic consumption of fresh yellow onions in Peru is increasing,” Vargas Monge said in the news release. “We are working quite well and the consumer is beginning to differentiate its flavor, which is milder than that of the onions used to cook, and it is suitable for salads, grills or just to eat it raw.” 

Once the sweet red onion is developed, it will be exported to the U.S. and sold in the Peruvian market, Key Peru said.

“Last year, we did some tests in a supermarket and we did pretty well; the greatest challenge we’ll have is that consumers might associate it with the traditional spicy red onion, and that’s something we don’t want,” Vargas Monge said.

The company said its primary objective now is to complete the testing period and find the variety that can serve as standard in the long-term.

But the century’s reliability has built a widespread loyalty among growers in Peru, said Walt Dasher, co-owner of Glennville, Ga.-based G&R Farms.

“There’s a variety called Pegasus, another flat variety, but century has performed so well, it’s very difficult to get these guys to agree to something else,” Dasher said.

He also said Peru has the Sweet Caroline, which bears some similarities to the century in its growing pattern.

“We have some this year and they look great — the size profile looks the same. I can’t tell the difference,” Dasher said.

Signs that the century has run its course are beginning to be evident, said Barry Rogers, president of Grant, Fla.-based Sweet Onion Trading Corp.

He said the seed companies are always trying to develop new varieties.

“Anytime you’ve got a hybrid cross, every year it changes a little bit, and you never get the exact same onion,” he said.

“They atrophy and become something totally different after awhile. For instance, century has been our mainstay for over 10 years, and we’re starting to see a lot more double centers in there than we used to, although the shelf life seems to be consistent.”

Tinkering with new varieties comes naturally because an established variety has only so many years of peak quality, and that includes the century, Dasher said.

“There’s going to be a day when the century will run its course, so I think growers have to keep their options open with some other varieties, so when a change needs to be made, they’re familiar with it and they can do it,” he said.

The quest for new varieties that will offer better yields and improved flavor is ongoing, said Mark Breimeister, sales director with Saven Corp., an affiliate of Savannah, Ga.-based onion grower-shipper Oso Sweet.

“We don’t turn a blind eye. We saw the seed that we prefer, that’s been around for a while, but we do test out other seeds on a yearly basis,” he said.

Oso Sweet has looked into growing a red sweet variety.

”We do talk about doing a sweet red seed down there and have tried it in the past and are actually talking about putting some in right now for this year, in limited volumes,” he said.