Growing onions and potatoes in New York’s muck soils

Doug Williams farmed with his father in 1949. He has since expanded Williams Farms to about 800 acres, and his sons, John and Steve, became partners in 1986. They grow apples, field corn, onions and potatoes at the farm, which is located about 7 miles south of Lake Ontario in Marion, N.Y. Approximately 450 acres of the farm are comprised of muck soils.

Doug, John and Steve Williams pause for a moment during harvesting in an onion field.
Photos by Bob Ferguson.

The Williams men acknowledge that farming is a gamble, but Doug says, “I’ve enjoyed it all my life.”

Steve adds, “Farming is hard work; you’ve got to like it. It’s a challenge. Every day is different.”

Gazing at the clear blue sky, John asks, “Come out on a day like today – how can you not love it?”

Rich muck soil

Muck soil started out many years ago as wetlands. When dried or drained, the vegetation remained, leaving the soil with dark, rich organic matter. Some call it “black gold,” primarily due to its high fertility, moisture-holding ability and propensity for warming early in the spring.

The Williams family specializes in onions and potatoes on seven muck areas ranging from a single acre to 65 acres. The soil is 11 feet deep in spots. Each muck field is tiled and has a drainage ditch on one end.

Muck soils require management, so each field is tested yearly and amended accordingly. Cover crops, especially oats, protect and further enrich the soil. Careful rotation practices, including field corn, mitigate pest buildup, resulting in reduced pesticide usage.

Williams Farms follows good agricultural practices and good handling practices (GAP and GHP). With onions, potatoes and field corn, sometimes converging planting and harvesting dates demand efficiency. Moreover, weather situations often exact a balance of priorities. The 2012 season created its share of complications.

The number of employees peaks during planting and harvesting, often reaching over 20, plus four full-time workers. Steve praises the dedication and efficiency of the Mexican workers, and says that they are a necessity in American agriculture.

Pungent onions

The muck soils produce beautiful, pungent yellow onions. Depending on weather and soil conditions, 125 acres of onions are direct-seeded, ideally in mid to late April. A Stanhay precision planter places seven to nine pelleted seeds per foot. Transplants, John explains, can easily suffer neck rot. Experience indicates which varieties perform best in their various onion fields. Varieties include Fortress, Hamlet, Hendrix, Red Zeppelin, Safrane and other long-day pungent storage onions. If pests threaten trouble, controls are applied according to integrated pest management guidelines.

Harvesting begins with field undercutting around late September. Then the fragrant globes are field-cured for 10 to 14 days, depending on weather. A Shuknecht harvester is used to scoop and load onions into the farm’s fleet of “deuce-and-a-half” (2.5-ton) trucks, which transport the onions to the warehouse area. Debris is removed with a Haines dirt eliminator. Onions are then moved to the grading equipment for roller topping, to the brusher and sizing chain, and the picking table. Employees select the smaller ones, “boilers,” for November sales and pack the rest into 1,100-pound boxes.

The workers place a tarp covering on every third box, and stack them four high via forklifts. Out in the open, the onions finish curing and drying in about a month, and then are stored in the farm’s insulated warehouse. Final grading occurs during the winter. Regulars measure 2.25 to 3 inches; those over 3 inches are sold as State Jumbo.

With the exception of some direct sales to Wegmans, Williams Farms markets onions to repackers in Orange County, N.Y., where onions are packed in 2 to 3-pound bags for retail sales.

This past June and July were hotter and drier than usual. Because onions demand sufficient water during their sizing stages, irrigation was essential at times. Although potable, expensive municipal water impacted production costs. A 5.5-inch rain event also harmed the crop. Consequently, this season’s onions were somewhat smaller than usual.

Fresh market potatoes

The weather also affected the potato crop, reducing the yield by about 25 percent. However, sizing was very good. Williams Farms typically plants 225 acres of fresh market potatoes, starting in mid-March to around June 10.

This year, using certified seed potatoes, 10 acres were devoted to NY 118, a red-skinned, white-fleshed variety resistant to scab; 50 acres were planted with yellow-fleshed Yukon Gold; and 165 acres produced the round white potato, Reba. Both NY 118 and Reba were bred in the Cornell program; Yukon Gold is Canadian-bred. Recommendations for Reba’s seasonal nitrogen requirement illustrate the fertility difference of muck soils – 80 pounds per acre compared with 100 to 125 pounds per acre for mineral soils.

An integrated pest management consultant keeps insects and diseases at bay in this problem-susceptible crop.

At the sorting line, John Williams and his crew examine potatoes to cull and separate the extra-large “chefs” for the restaurant trade.

From Labor Day to mid-October, when weather cooperates, potato harvesting and postharvest handling demand careful attention. Williams Farms uses specialized equipment from various sources to produce its potatoes, including the Kverneland four-row, cup-style planter, Double L harvesting equipment, FMC washing equipment and Agritech sorting equipment.

After curing, culling, washing, drying and sorting, the potatoes are stored in pallet boxes in the farm’s temperature and humidity-controlled facility. Weekly monitoring addresses any potential problems. The local Wegmans food market stocks them, while repackers supply many retailers all along the East Coast. Shipments, whether in 5, 10, 50 or 100-pound bags, continue until June.


Rows of apple trees fill 65 acres on the farm. Cortland, Golden Delicious, Ida Red, Jonagold and Rome provide variety. The orchard has both standard and grafted trees. The rootstocks include M-111 and M-7. All are pruned yearly. Fertility is managed by a consultant who performs leaf analysis. Steve usually limes the soil and applies potash in the fall. Calcium nitrate, sulfur, magnesium and gypsum may be applied. Pest control and spray schedules follow consultant recommendations. “Timing is critical,” Steve says.

Steve Williams stands in front of a grafted tree almost overburdened with Rome apples.

This year’s unseasonably warm spring and subsequent cold caused severe damage to many New York orchards. Williams Farms’ Ida Red was affected because it blossoms early.

From late September through October, the picking crew climbs the trees, filling bushel bags with apples, which get loaded into 22-bushel bins. A forklift is used to transfer the bins to a staging area, and then onto a supplier’s flatbed trailer. The apples are usually transported to controlled-atmosphere storage and treated to inhibit ethylene. These steps help retain quality. Distribution is continuous until about March. Fallen apples are harvested separately and used to make pasteurized juice.

Except for some Golden Delicious shipped to Canada for the fresh market, the apples are destined for processing.

Williams Farms does not store apples. Rather, suppliers, including Farm Fresh First and Lake Breeze Fruit Farms in New York and Knouse Foods in Pennsylvania, receive the fruit within a day of harvest.

Corn and cabbage

This Shuknecht harvester and “deuce-and-a-half” truck can pick up 10 to 12 acres of onions per day.

Field corn takes up 250 acres of Williams Farms. Depending on rotational needs, in some years they grow corn on part of the muck acreage. Varieties include those by Dekalb, Pioneer and Croplan Genetics. When harvested after the other crops, the corn is dried, stored and sold by a feed supplier.

This past season, Williams Farms produced cabbage on 10 acres. Cabbage and similar crops perform well on muck soils – at one time Marion was the celery capital and also excelled in spinach and carrot production.

Conservation for healthy soil and crops

It took nature many years to build muck soil, and there’s less available now than even 50 years ago. Doug notes, “When muck dries, you can see wind blowing the soil away. It won’t come back.” The Williams family takes special care of theirs. Barley is planted as a windbreak to control erosion. Their trucks have been configured to alleviate soil compaction, with flotation tires, lengthened wheelbases and the addition of a third axle on some – all to ensure many more seasons of quality production.

The author is a writer/researcher specializing in agriculture. She currently resides in central Pennsylvania.