Last year, onions became so expensive that I often put them straight back on the supermarket shelf after looking at the price tag.

To figure out the onion price situation this year, I recently asked an onion farmer in Shiroishi, Saga Prefecture, about the crop. In Shiroishi, known as a major onion production center, shipments of spring-season onions are in full swing now.

“We have been paying maximum attention (to the conditions of onions) this year,” said Seigo Tajima, a 62-year-old onion grower in the town. “We have been spared an epidemic so far. But the question is whether the harvests in May and June will not be infected. We will soon enter the crucial stage.”

Tajima makes a point of frequently making the rounds of onion fields in the area including those of other growers to monitor the condition of the vegetable.

He is making every effort to scupper the onslaught of downy mildew, a potentially devastating disease of onions caused by a fungus-like plant pathogen called Peronospora destructor. It causes the leaves to wither and thereby prevents bulbs from developing.

An epidemic of downy mildew last year caused severe damage to crops in wide swathes of Saga Prefecture, a leading supplier of both spring and summer onions, creating what was then described as “a crisis of survival” for the prefecture’s onion crop.

As onion fields in Hokkaido, another major onion production center, were hit by typhoons and floods, prices of the vegetable soared nationwide.

The unprecedented disaster has prompted the prefectural government and local onion farmers to embark on all-out joint efforts to prevent the disease.

Infected onions have been collected and burned. Ridges in fields have been raised and soil has been fortified.

Tajima and other onion farmers in the prefecture have visited Awajishima island in Hyogo Prefecture, which has experienced an epidemic of downy mildew, to obtain useful information.

They have developed the habit of sharing information about infections.

“The onion is the truffle of the poor,” said Robert Courtine (19101998), the late French gourmet who penned the gastronomy column for the French newspaper Le Monde for decades.

He meant that onions, despite their affordable prices, are a highly valuable vegetable with the same levels of sweetness and aroma as those of pricy truffles.

In Japan, onions started to become popular in the early Meiji Period (18681912).

A poet Sanki Saito composed a short poem about onions.

"Seeing onions/ Shining above the surface in the field/ I mutter to them, 'Survive.' "

In the Saga plain, green onion leaves are now seen growing toward the sky, basking in the warm spring sunlight.

Infected leaves, by contrast, are brownish and thin, showing clear signs of the disease.

As I walked in the onion fields in Shiroishi, I prayed for their survival.

--The Asahi Shimbun, April 21

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.