Women of Lükarija

A demonstration of onion braiding. Photo Samanta Gomboc, Mariborinfo

From 19th to mid-20th century, onion growing and trade represented the main livelihood of Lükarija farmers and was exclusively run by women.

The traditional farmers’ way of life was characterized by hard manual labour which engaged all family members. Women often performed heavy physical work and took on men’s tasks when men were unable to work or not present. In fact, they do not recall not doing a certain task just because it was defined as men’s work or because it was considered to be too heavy for women. And yet, the gendered division of labour was very strict.

Women were responsible for the household, raising children, tending animals, and doing other unpaid work at the farm, while men worked the fields using agricultural machinery and engaged in group work as part of neighbourhood help or various commercial activities for payment. In general, women were not supposed to work for money, but there were always exceptions. In Dornava, the commercial production of lük became one such exception at the beginning of 19th century. Its production and trade were in women’s domain and represented the main livelihood of small- and medium-size estates. In good seasons, the earnings covered schooling expenses for children and the traditional song of lük-growing families (“We, the lük growers, are proud of our lük, no matter if it fills eyes up with tears”) reflects their feelings well.

Red onion has a great medicinal value and is highly appreciated in folk medicine and cuisine. This ancient crop arrived to Europe from Asia and even today, farmers need to do a lot of planning and manual work to successfully grow onions, since they need three years to grow from a seed, two years from seedlings, and – luckily for hobby gardeners – only one year if the sets (small onion bulbs) are used.

“We, the lük growers, are proud of our lük, no matter if it fills eyes up with tears.”

In Dornava, preparations began in early spring on the ploughed fields. Women planted the sets and kept weeding the field until June. They also had to sow rye and prepare straw to be able to weave the onion braids when the onions were ripe. To preserve freshness, onions had to be harvested and dried when the part above the ground was still green. Lük had the highest price in late autumn and winter when other varieties were already sprouting. A braid usually consisted of 12 intertwined onions representing the months of the year. If an onion rot away, it was believed that particularly bad weather is expected in that month. Today, the craft of onion braiding has almost been lost, and despite all the efforts, only few elderly women still possess the know-how.

Once the braids were made, women sold their harvest from door to door and on the city markets of the Štajerska and Prekmurje region. Many even ventured outside the Slovenian territory, to cities in Croatia, Hungary, and Austria. In addition to the independence gained through earnings, the connections built among women inside and outside their family were a great source of strength to them. Thus, the gendered division of labour did not isolate women, but rather offered them the opportunity to meet, network, and protect each other. This helped them to stand up to men in times when, largely due to a powerful influence of the Church, submission of women was taken for granted.

After World War II, the production of lük sharply declined, since farmers began to focus on crops that could be treated mechanically. Thus, in 2019, only five farmers still produced lük. Despite the fact that it is the most well-known Slovenian indigenous onion variety and the first garden crop to receive protected geographical indication (PGI) in Slovenia, its producers are faced with several challenges. The biggest is their inability to compete on the global market, because industrially grown onions, treated with products to increase shelf life, are considerably cheaper. In addition, due to the PGI, the farmers are not allowed to use fertilizers, so their crop level might be four times lower in comparison to the industrially grown onion. However, lük growers do not measure its value only in money. For them, it is lük rather than an apple a day that keeps the doctor away.

Čüšek Homestead

Dornava is the oldest and largest village of Lükarija – the central part of Ptujsko polje named after the indigenous variety of red onion called lük. Every penultimate Sunday in August, the Lükari festival brings to life traditions linked to the lük production. By prior arrangement, the Čüšek Homestead offers a documentary video on lük, a demonstration of onion braiding, and a traditional lunch. The interior is not accessible to persons with reduced mobility. Nearby, you can visit the baroque mansion Dornava and the Ribniki Podvinci nature reserve.