New York’s beloved ‘black dirt’ onions

Pine Island’s unique ‘muck soil’ is high in sulphur, which increases the onions’ sugar content and makes them perfect for cooking.

When Cheryl Rogowski, a farmer from Pine Island, New York, talks about the things that impact the area’s famous onion crop, she isn’t just talking about the weather forecast. Her thoughts reach as far back as two million years to the glacier that once stretched across North America.

She thinks about the glacial lakes that formed as the ice receded. How Pine Island, a valley within a valley, became one of those lakes. She thinks about how mastodons must have fed off the very land on which she would eventually learn to farm. She considers it magical. The occasional mastodon skull rising up out of the soft earth only adds to the illusion that Pine Island is both modern day and prehistoric.

Rogowski’s parcel of land is down a steep slope that opens up into a panorama of the valley. Her fields reflect her love of colour. This season’s crops are a collage of lettuce, epazote, cabbage, squash, cucumber, tomato, peppers, sunflowers and gladiolas. 

She’s always experimented with the land. In the 1980s, soon after her father gifted her five acres to farm for herself, she started planting jalapenos. “You can’t grow jalapenos in the north-east,” some were quick to warn. This was when it was rare to see a jalapeno in the local supermarkets. But it worked, and at one time her farm had more than 1,000 varieties of chillies. 

However, it’s the onion that has transformed the landscape and culture of Pine Island. The high sulphur content of the soil from thousands of years of composted vegetation ups the pyruvic acid levels in the onions, which, in turn, increases the sugar content, resulting in a bold, pungent taste. This makes the Pine Island onion exceptional for cooking. When caramelised, they become uniquely sweet.

“The flavours are brighter, sharper, cleaner,” Rogowski said. She makes a smoked onion jam that she claims won’t taste the same with any other onions.

The earth here – darkened by millennia of plant matter build-up from the glacial lake – is so peculiarly damp and organically rich that it also gives the onions a longer shelf life than most other onions.

Pine Island is the second largest landmass of this type of soil in the United States. Satellite images of the area show large sweeps of black plots, protracted across the region, that cover about 18,000 acres. This is why Pine Island is known as “The Black Dirt Region” or “The Drowned Lands”. Locals call it “muck soil” – it’s what you’d get if someone drained the Everglades in Florida, they say. Rogowski calls it a national treasure. 

“We’re farming a giant bowl of compost,” she said.

We’re farming a giant bowl of compost

John Ruszkiewicz, president of the Drowned Lands Historical Society, grew up in Pine Island harvesting onions by hand until, like most farmers his age, the children were replaced with machines. He likes to tell of how within days of President Franklin Roosevelt’s inauguration and the enactment of his New Deal, the Army Corps of Engineers was sent to the area to help drain the land by way of digging ditches that empty into the nearby Wallkill River.

Since Pine Island is a lakebed turned into a valley, there is always the potential for flood. Long-time residents refer to the patches of small, grass-covered hills spotted along the fields as islands. The homes built upon those hills become lakefront property in the floodwaters. The long, narrow ditches help reduce excess water and must be maintained yearly or they might collapse in on themselves.

The fields have an almost trampoline-like quality. Rogowski likes to have visitors stand in two rows facing each other. One group will jump so the other can feel the inexplicable bounce. She swears you can feel the vibrations from distant trains reverberate through the valley floor.

Rogowski is descended from Polish immigrants who came to the region in the late 19th Century. They worked the farms that were, at the time, predominantly owned by Irish families – many of whom had fled Ireland’s potato famine. When the Irish began to move out of Pine Island for more urban areas, Poles and Volga Germans acquired land. They knew if they could drain the area properly, they would have vast, fertile room for growing.

There used to be elaborate, albeit sporadic, onion-themed festivals that coincided with the harvest – an old Polish tradition known as Dożynki, which means “to reap”. People wore traditional Polish costumes, danced to Polka and paraded papier-mâché onions so large they could be mistaken for moons rolling down the town’s main thoroughfare, Pulaski Highway. Young women would make their own costumes by hand and compete in dances as Onion Princesses to become the Onion Queen, an honour that meant they’d won the chance to represent Pine Island, and their Polish heritage.

The Onion Queen of 1983, Laurie Anne Savaglio, née Kocot, also won a cruise to Bermuda.

“I will never forget it,” Savaglio said. “It was one of the highlights of my life.”

Though an Onion Queen hasn’t been crowned since 1995, it’s hard to find anyone in the area who doesn’t know at least one former Onion Princess.

Rogowski was an Onion Princess in 1983. She remembers posing for a picture in her costume, standing amid a patch of seed onion – tall green stalks with white globes filled with tiny green seeds. Rogowski believes she’s one of the only Onion Princesses who remained a full-time farmer.

“You can be the best farmer in the world, but there are things out of your control,” she said, recalling the destruction caused by 2011’s Hurricane Irene, which put Pine Island back underwater, devastating almost every crop. After the hurricane, Rogowski was forced to foreclose on her property. Now she’s a few miles away, on new land, down from 150 acres to 10. She can see what remains of her old family farm just beyond her current seed onion patch.

You can be the best farmer in the world, but there are things out of your control

After spending his childhood in the family fields, Chris Pawelski, a fourth-generation onion farmer, became disillusioned with onions by the time he left Pine Island to attend college. He then got married and moved to Wisconsin with his wife in 1991, where he settled into an office job. But one day, he found himself looking out the window and envying the guys mowing the lawn. He hated being stuck at a desk. So he moved back to Pine Island in August 1993. He managed a few acres on the family property when he returned, and by 1996 he was farming full time. And from 1996 onward, he was hit with every kind of disaster: hail, drought and flood. He’s since become a vocal advocate for specialty crop farmers, such as onion farmers, even testifying before the United States Senate in favour of crop insurance policy reformation as it pertains to disaster relief.

Some areas of Pine Island are shallower than others. Where Ruszkiewicz farms, the muck is 3ft to 4ft deep. Where Pawelski farms, it’s about 8ft to 9ft deep. And where Rogowski grew up, they used to say the muck could be 300ft deep before hitting the clay and rock. The onions need a decent depth of soil to grow in. After the harvests, farmers will plant cover crops such as barley and winter rye to help keep the soil in place.

Save for the floods, beetles and muskrats that prey upon the crops, onions are actually quite hardy. The same goes for those who tend to them.

Rogowski hardly let any time pass between losing her farm and finding her new parcel. She needs the land as much as the land needs her. It’s a difficult, yet reciprocal relationship. During farmer’s market season, she’ll put in 35 to 40 hours between Friday and Sunday baking jalapeno-cheddar breads and garlic, scape and parsley scones into the night and sleeping in the passenger seat as her sister drives her in the morning to the markets.

More than even the fear of natural disasters, most from Pine Island share a greater concern: where’s the next generation of farmers? Although some children are working to take over the family farms, many are not interested.

“The newest farmers come from other countries,” Rogowski said. “They settle here and, in a way, they’re like my father and their kids are like me.” She tries to see the land as an heirloom passed from immigrants to immigrants – something enduring far into the future.

When asked about how someone thousands of miles away might decide to come to Pine Island, Rogowski said, “Someone knows someone who knows someone and they tell each other about this region.” It’s through word of mouth that generations of farmers have come to this fertile area to learn the reward and the sacrifice of a life spent in the fields.

For her ability to reinvent herself as a farmer and her dedication to helping migrant workers hoping to jumpstart their own careers, Rogowski received a MacArthur Fellowship – also known as the “genius grant” – in 2004, which the MacArthur Foundation describes as an “investment in a person’s originality, insight, and potential”. Rogowski hadn’t even heard of the award until she got the call with the news.

“[The immigrants] teach me so much about different herbs, or ways of using something I hadn’t thought of before.” And in turn, Rogowski helps them learn English and put new roots down for their families.

To see Pine Island’s vast black onion fields is to witness how generations of Polish, Irish, German, Mexican and other immigrant communities have learned to navigate the whims of Mother Nature – and local establishments celebrate their achievements in their menus. The Pine Island Brewing Company has used local onions to produce a special beer named the Drowned Lands Saison. Chef Armand Vanderstigchel, co-owner of The Jolly Onion, receives onions right after they’ve been harvested so that he can turn them into his popular potato onion pierogis or Pine Island onion soup gratinée.

Vanderstigchel, who’s from Holland, says cooking with Pine Island onions makes all the difference in the taste. “The level of freshness is just much better. When you buy onions from a distributor, they’re weeks old. These onions come off the field and I get them right away.”

The onions arrive to the Jolly Onion with a coat of muck and smelling of damp earth. The muck clings to everything. Even at the local petrol station across the street, you can find tiny piles of black dirt where farm workers have kicked it free from their boots before going in to buy a cold drink.

Through it all, Pine Island does still find time to celebrate. For the last 11 years, Janet Zimmerman, of the Pine Island Chamber of Commerce, has organised the annual Black Dirt Feast.

The Feast takes place in August, and when the tickets go up for sale in June, they sell out almost immediately. It’s a chance to honour the land, the harvest and the resolve of the residents.

This land has a heartbeat

The day I visited, Rogowski’s hands were black from picking Colorado potato beetles one by one from the leaves in her potato patch. The image is familiar. When she was a girl learning to farm, she’d spend the days weeding by hand. It’s meticulous work that’s been passed down through generations.

“All I know is we’ve been doing it forever,” she said. “This land has a heartbeat.” It seems that just being close to this soil has an almost supernatural, restorative quality. When she calls the muck a living thing, it’s hard not to think that the very ground beneath her feet is breathing.

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