Find out how researchers aim to revolutionise onion farming   

Researchers at the University of Essex are aiming to revolutionise onion farming by growing the vegetable inside a shipping container in a bid to speed up growth and make the process better for the environment.

Professor Tracy Lawson of Essex’s School of Life Sciences will use innovative techniques to grow onions for major supplier Stourgarden.

Professor Tracy Lawson of Essex’s School of Life Sciences will use innovative techniques to grow onions for major supplier Stourgarden, which caters to high-profile retailers, global restaurant chains and food manufacturers. 

Professor Lawson will experiment with aeroponic growing methods to grow onions in a more sustainable way, which will see them grown in an air and mist environment.  

 Extremely exciting project 

The research partnership with Stourgarden, which is based in Great Horkesley, will also aim to reduce and prevent disease. This is another key issue in the onion farming industry, which can leave soil unusable for several years. 

Professor Lawson said that the project is “extremely exciting” as it expands on the university’s ongoing research focused on manipulating light within controlled environments and vertical farms.   

“We are now channelling this expertise towards a crop with diverse growth stages, ranging from seed germination to bulb formation.  

“Working directly with a local company to develop the right conditions for rapid growth demonstrated the translation aspect and potential impact of this work,” she added. 

Professor Tracy Lawson of Essex’s School of Life Sciences

Looking to the future

Jonathan Bell, project lead from Stourgarden

The project lead from Stourgarden, Jonathan Bell, explained that the programme will put the growing of onions “under the microscope” and allow researchers to understand more about the crop’s growth as well as how environmental conditions affect an onion plant.   

He said: “We will be looking to the future, and how controlled environment agriculture can play a part in the supply of onions to UK consumers.  

“To wholly replace traditional field production is not the aim, but there is a role for CEA to play in improving current growing and supply.  

“Early lab trials at the University of Essex have shown onion plants respond well in a controlled environment and we plan to build on knowledge already gained.”  

Grown without soil 

The experiment will take place inside a specially designed container farm equipped with the latest aeroponic irrigation equipment, supplied by LettUs Grow.  

Using LettUs Grow’s ultrasonic aeroponics, plants are grown without soil and irrigated using a nutrient-dense mist. The researchers said that this will benefit the plant by increasing access to oxygen and boosting plant health, resulting in increased growth rates and yields.  

This method is also resource efficient as it reduces the use of fertiliser and water.   

Mist is being used to keep the crops hydrated
Jack Farmer, chief scientific officer and co-founder at LettUs Grow

Jack Farmer, chief scientific officer and co-founder at LettUs Grow, said: “We’re thrilled to be working with both Stourgarden and the University of Essex on a project that’s at the cutting edge of innovation within our industry. Aeroponics is a powerful irrigation method that has the potential to be applied to a variety of crops within our diets.   

“Onions are a staple crop in the UK, so we’re really excited to be exploring how aeroponics can improve the sustainability & efficiency of the growing process. Enabling new production methods with a positive impact is at the core of our company mission, so we really can’t wait to get started.”  

Aim to increase UK food security 

Holly Leonard, innovation partnerships manager at Essex

The project is being jointly funded by grants from Innovate UK and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.   

Holly Leonard, innovation partnerships manager at Essex, said: “We’re delighted to be working with local partners, Stourgarden on this project.   

“Their status as the UK’s largest producer of onions means this project has the potential to positively impact food production in the UK.   

“Not only is the project going to advance scientific understanding through research, if we can prove the commercial case for protected growing of traditional field crops such as onions, there is potential to increase UK food security by extending growing seasons and reducing reliance on imports.”  

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