Onion World / February 1995
By Larry Luxner
SEBACO, Nicaragua -- This little town 115 kilometers north of Managua isn't much more than an impoverished truck stop along the desolate Pan-American Highway. But if things go right, Sebaco could soon become the sweet-onion capital of Central America.
That's because the land around Sebaco -- fertile, flat, inexpensive and low in sulfur -- is believed to be among the world's best for cultivation of sweet onions.
This past year, in fact, Nicaraguan sweet onion exports jumped eight-fold to 220,000 boxes, from the 30,000 boxes shipped in 1993 (see Onion World, March/April 1994). At an average $17 per 50-pound box, this comes to more than $3.7 million.
Nicaragua's Sebaco Sweets lable is already a familiar sight at Publix and Kroger's supermarket shelves up and down the U.S. East Coast. Meanwhile, independent producers, assisted by the U.S. Agency for International Development, have begun converting an obsolete, Bulgarian-built food processing factory into a modern onion sorting and packing facility for the entire Sebaco Valley region.
And Dr. Doyle Smittle, a retired University of Georgia onion specialist in Tifton, is advising Nicaraguan farmers on cultivation techniques.
The idea is to make Nicaragua America's leading alternate source of sweet onions when Georgia's world-famous Vidalia sweet onions aren't in season. This could give Nicaragua -- currently the Western Hemisphere's poort nation after Haiti -- a potential lucrative source of foreign exchange.
"Our marketing strategy is aimed at getting the American consumer to identify Sebaco Valley with sweet onions as it now does with Vidalias," says René Ruíz Quezada, whose company, Vegetales de Valle Sebaco, employs 90 workers and currently exports 18% of Nicaragua's sweet onions.
Adds Fernando Mansell, general manager of Manprosa, the country's largest exporter: "We're trying to get a niche market. We have a gentleman's agreement with Georgia onion producers that we won't sell any onions within 15 days of the beginning of their harvest."
Mansell, whose father, Samuel Mansell, started the family business 30 years ago, said Manprosa originally grew rice and cotton for local and regional markets, but suffered financially when Sandinista rebels came to power in 1979. At the height of Nicaragua's civil war, the Soviet-backed government forced workers to sign statements saying Mansell was ruthlessly exploiting them -- even though it wasn't true. "If they didn't sign the papers," he said, "the Sandinistas would send their children into the mountains to fight the contras."
Then the war ended, and in 1991 -- with the Sandinistas out of power and the U.S. embargo against Nicaragua a thing of the past -- Manprosa began cultivating sweet onions, though almost by accident.
"McDonald's was looking for someone to grow large onions for onion rings during January and February, because in those months all they could get were storage onions, which were too small," said Mansell, who ships exclusively to Georgia Vegetable Co. in Tifton. "We started with eight manzanas (a unit of measurement similar to an acre). Now we have 200 manzanas under cultivation."
Billy Thomas, a salesman with Georgia Vegetable, estimates his company will import 200 container-loads of sweet onions from Manprosa this season, which lasts from Jan. 10 to Mar. 1. At 850 fifty-pound boxes per container-load, that's a crop of more than 4,200 tons.
Several factors make Nicaragua ideal for sweet-onion growing, according to Carlos A. Velazquez, an official with Nicaragua's Non-Traditional Producers and Exporters Association (known by its Spanish acronym APENN).
"Our low rainfall enables farmers to control the amount of water through drip irrigation," said Velazquez. "Also, the altitude is right, and so is the fact that the soil has a low sulfur content."
Low sulfur makes for "sweeter" onions, or those that measure 4.1 or less on a pungency index invented by Smittle himself. A really good sweet onion, according to Mansell, has a pungency of 2.0 on the Smittle index.
"Onions are sensitive to day length," Smittle said during a recent interview. "In the U.S., sweet onions are harvested in April, May and June. But if you move closer to the equator, you have that day length all year. So, it's possible to grow and harvest onions in the tropics any day of the year."
At the moment, 22 producers employing 750 to 1,000 people year-round grow the bulk of onions in Nicaragua. The country has a population of 4 million and measures 46,430 square miles, about four-fifths the size of Georgia.
According to Ruíz, three years ago there was no distinction in U.S. markets between yellow and sweet onions. Vidalia growers asked the U.S. government to enact a classification system, which is now in effect at supermarkets throughout the country.
Ruíz has a contract to supply 25 container-loads of sweet onions to Bob DeBruyn of Zeeland, Michigan, one of the nation's largest onion grower/shippers. He is also working with Orinco Ltd. of New York, and at least one importer in South Florida.
In addition to the 18% of Nicaraguan sweet-onion exports handled by Ruíz, Manprosa controls another 45%, APENN 12% and a fourth company, Samuel Amador, the remaining 25%. Only jumbo and colossal onions are exported; the remaining 140,000 or so boxes of smaller onions are sold on the local market.
Ordinarily, it wouldn't pay for U.S. produce buyers to import regular onions from Central America, since it costs $4-5 a bag just in shipping. But sweet onions, which have been retailing for up to 99 cents a pound, are a much more valuable commodity.
Nevertheless, transportation costs from Nicaragua are high, mainly because the country doesn't have its own Atlantic port. As a result, onions must be trucked north along the Pan-American Highway to Honduras and shipped from Puerto Cortés, or to Costa Rica and shipped from Puerto Limón.
In the meantime, APENN will soon employ 70 workers earning 18 córdobas ($2.60) a day in an onion-sorting operation. Housed in a former canned-tomato factory built by the Bulgarian government during the Sandinista regime, the $1 million project is being financed by U.S. AID and has the support of Manprosa and other major onion growers.
APENN also has two separate projects involving cultivation of sesame and baby corn. Sesame exports already total $14 million; markets for the new project would be the U.S., Germany and Peru. Likewise, baby corn would be planted in the western zones of León and Chinandega, and generate $2 million in foreign exchange.
But APENN's priority right now, said Velazquez, is the sweet onion project.
"We want to get a group of farmers together to plant, process and export their products," he said. "If they make a profit in planting, they will make a profit in the processing and export of their product. The project will transfer technology and teach farmers how to experiment on their own."
Evenor Madriz, who's directly in charge of that project, says he's working with eight small producers, who have anywhere from 5 to 18 manzanas each. He says sweet onion cultivation could help Nicaragua get away from its traditional dependence on coffee. And even though coffee prices are very high at the moment, he warns, they could drop unexpectedly, creating havoc for those whose livelihoods depend on coffee.
"Sugar content and sulfur are the two criteria for onion production, though sugar doesn't matter that much. What really matters is sulfur," Madriz explained over lunch at the Restaurante Los Gemelos, a greasy spoon on the outskirts of Sebaco. "So, when we choose a place to grow onions, we do an analysis of the soil and water to determine the sulfur content. In some places, we have sulfur, but it's inaccessible to the plant. But the best is soil with no sulfur."
Velazquez said APENN's onion project was supposed to cover 125 manzanas by now, but because of funding problems, it measures only 50 manzanas at the moment. In addition to the packing facility, APENN also has cold storage facilities at Managua's Sandino International Airport for onions awaiting export to the U.S. by air.