It just took a devoted seed executive and a glamorous first lady who’s expressed little overt interest in the famous White House Kitchen Garden that her predecessor left.
Determined to give Trump what Burpee chief executive George Ball calls “a literal piece of home,” the Pennsylvania seed company has been working since the beginning of the year to locate the seeds of the elusive "Raka Red" onion, much to the delight of the tiny agricultural community in Slovenia that Trump’s family is originally from.
Officials from the region have been trying to promote the onion for years, without a whole lot of luck. Now they’re hoping a spot in the White House garden could give the obscure onion a much-needed bump.
“It’s fascinating that this thing has survived for so long, and that these guys are actively trying to resurrect it,” said Simon Crawford, a Burpee plant breeder who recently returned from a research trip to Raka to inspect the farms. “Also, it’s a really, really lovely onion.”
The Raka is larger than a shallot and slightly smaller than an American bulb onion. It’s mild enough to eat raw, which locals typically do with wine and sausages; they also stew, sauce and top pizzas with it.
But it’s the onion’s origins that originally attracted the attention of Ball and others at his company. That’s because Trump’s maternal grandfather, Anton Ulčnik, was the largest grower and breeder of the onion for several decades, beginning in the late 1940s.
A spokeswoman for the first lady declined to comment, noting that her family members are private citizens and it is not the office's policy to speak about them. But as a major local agricultural producer, Trump's grandfather's work is already well-documented.
Ulčnik, like many rural Slovenians, kept livestock and grew carrots, turnips, beets, corn and onions on a small family farm in addition to his regular work as a cobbler, according to his son Franc in comments translated and reported by the Slovenian journalist Bojan Požar. Ulčnik lived in the small rural village of Raka, not far from the Croatian border -- a place still advertised in tourist brochures for its yellow double-steepled church and medieval castle.
It was, and is, typical for local people to keep large gardens for home use. But over time, Ulčnik began to grow the onions for sale to distributors and other farmers, according to Franc Ulčnik, who is the youngest brother of Trump's mother, Amalija, and is the first lady's uncle.
By the 1970s, Ulčnik was the largest single grower of Raka onions, harvesting as many as 50 tons per year. He was also an important breeder of the Raka Red, said Franc Češnovar, a native of Raka and the manager of the Krško Center for Entrepreneurship and Tourism.
"Melania’s grandfather was the biggest Raka onion and onion seed producer and the primary selectionist at that time," Češnovar said in an email. "He surely helped improve the quality of the species by selecting the best plants, and preserved ‘Raka Red’ for future generations."
But the Raka Red fell from prominence in the 1980s and '90s. Anton Ulčnik, who died in 1992, scaled down his commercial operation as he aged. The economy of Slovenia also underwent radical change during that period, experiencing rapid development and industrialization in the wake of the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Given those changes, farming was no longer an attractive occupation to many people.
At present, only a handful of commercial farms grow the Raka Red, Češnovar said. It’s mostly confined to family vegetable plots. But his organization has been working to bring it back, both by encouraging farmers to plant more acres of Raka Red and by promoting the onion to grocery shoppers and foodie tourists as a premium local product.
Local agriculture schools have partnered with Raka Red farmers. Government grants have sponsored workshops and tours about the onion. Češnovar’s organization has trademarked the phrase “Best of Raka” for the onion and markets it beside local wine in regional tourism materials.
A Raka Red in the White House garden would raise the onion’s profile considerably.
"We believe the whole story of the onions and the local culinary traditions has great potential to develop into some kind of a tourist product," Češnovar said.
But there are still a number of hurdles keeping the onion from the White House, no matter how desperately Slovenian farmers or Burpee executives might like to see it there.
The seed stock still has to be tested and standardized, and then it must undergo trials at farms in the United States. Only then -- fall 2018, at the earliest -- can Ball, Burpee’s CEO, present it to the National Park Service for planting in the White House Kitchen Garden. ("I have been made aware of the company’s intentions with the seeds, but they have not reached out to the White House about it," a spokeswoman for the first lady said.) And even then, it’s unclear whether she will welcome the new addition.
While it is likely that Trump has seen, and perhaps even harvested, the onion before -- she told the magazine DuJour that she visited her grandparents every weekend growing up -- she has not shown much interest in the famous garden that Michelle Obama left for her.
The only public statement that her office has made about the garden was the promise, in February, that the first lady would not tear it up. The Burpee Foundation had previously donated $2.5 million to preserve the garden through 2030.
“I can’t predict if she’ll be a champion for the garden,” Ball said. “I hope so. I don’t know.”
But he maintains that the best way to spark the first lady’s interest may be to plant her a piece of home -- as early as late next year, depending on how the Raka Red grows.
“Some of the great plant breeders were Slavic,” Ball said. “And here we have these seeds, descended from her grandfather. Right from her grandfather’s hand.”