"If this is successful, we want to expand," said John McHugh, research horticulturist and entomologist for Jefts. "Our long-term goal is to do 150 acres of onions. This would be equal to about 20 percent of the onions imported to Hawaii."
Jefts' goal is to take a bite out of the local market. Hawaii currently imports about 90 percent of its onions. The rest comes from small farmers, including those who produce the sweet Maui onion.
Jefts will be testing six onion varieties to get a harder, yellow onion that has a longer storage life.
Much of the imported onions come from California and the Pacific Northwest but these begin to be depleted by February or March and that continues on through May, McHugh said.
"That gives us a window of opportunity," he added. "Locally produced onions can be provided to the Hawaii market. Right now, we are filling that gap with sweeter onions from Mexico."
Jefts is using a federal grant from the Rural Economic Transition Assistance program to help find new crops for former sugar lands. A bill authored by Sen. Daniel Inouye got the program started, McHugh said.
The federal government is providing $112,000 and Jefts is putting in about $225,000 in a 2-for-1 matching formula. "The funds are designed to help Hawaii grow more food for its people," McHugh said.
Jefts will be planting his 50 acres in two plots. One 25-acre plot will be off Kunia Road above Royal Kunia, and the other between Farrington Highway and the H-1 freeway on the Kapolei side of Palehua Road.
The onions sprout in 10 to 14 days; harvest is about four months later.
At Kunia, Jefts is also growing about 1,000 acres of watermelons a year, 250 acres of bell peppers and 200 acres of cabbage. On Molokai, he is growing enough tomatoes and cucumbers to meet about 60 percent of the in-state demand, McHugh said.