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Vidalia onions highest produce revenue generator in Georgia

by Christina DiMartino | December 16, 2009
George E. Boyhan, professor at the University of Georgia's Department of Horticulture & Extension in Athens, GA, issued a report Dec. 1 stating that Vidalia onions continue to be the greatest revenue generator among vegetables in Georgia, totaling almost $140 million in 2008.

"In terms of acres, sweet corn is number one, passing even watermelons, which require a lot of room to grow," Mr. Boyhan told The Produce News. "Sweet corn represents 22,657 acres, watermelons are at 21,852 acres and snap beans comprise 13,219 acres. While Vidalia onions are fourth, at 11,680 acres, the item is number one in revenue."

Mr. Boyhan added that while Georgia vegetable acres have declined by more than 20 percent in the past decade, the farm gate value -- the net value of product when it leaves the farm after marketing costs have been deducted -- has increased by almost 35 percent.

Wendy Brannen, executive director of the Vidalia Onion Committee in Vidalia, GA, concurred that Vidalia acreage has dropped, noting that it totaled 12,725 acres in 1995 but that the value of the product has increased considerably since then.

"There are a couple of reasons for the phenomenon of higher value on less acreage," said Ms. Brannen. "Vidalia marketing efforts started out as a grass- roots program in the 1980s, with the majority of the onions being marketed in Georgia and the Southeast. But in the 1990s, the popularity and movement of the onions began spreading to western areas of the country and into Canada, and people began identifying them by name. From then through the present time, we've seen great market expansion for our crop."

Another reason for the increased value compared to reduced acreage is the development of heartier seed varieties. Ms. Brannen explained that it takes two to three years to develop a seed that meets the Vidalia profile, and advancements make new seeds less prone to weather damage and diseases.

Growers have also worked hard to perfect their farming techniques, resulting in higher-volume production on less acreage. Yet another contributing factor to the high revenue on Vidalia onions today is controlled-atmosphere storage. Vidalia onions are harvested beginning in mid-April and running through mid-June.

"Years ago, the season ended with the end of the harvest," said Ms. Brannen. "Controlled-atmosphere storage technology has enabled us to now extend our season through early September."

Mr. Boyhan added that the 2008 market value of Georgia's crops after Vidalia onions were $118 million in watermelons and a little over $105 million in bell peppers. Overall vegetable production reached almost $850 million in farm gate value in 2008.

It is not all good news for Georgia growers this year, however. They faced serious weather challenges during the 2009 harvest.

Calvert Cullen, president of Northampton Growers, headquartered in Cheriton, VA, said that Georgia snap bean acreage decreased considerably in 2009.

"Several growers went out of business due to economic pressures," said Mr. Cullen. "And heavy spring rains caused losses and delays on what was planted. We had at least 30 percent losses on some crops."

Mr. Cullen agreed that new planting techniques are helping growers increase their volumes on less acreage than in years past. "It's the only way we can survive, given the increased competition from foreign countries," he said. "We utilize double and triple cropping, and most of our production is on plastic, so fertilizer and water goes directly into the plants' roots. We're growing cucumbers on trellises instead of in the ground. This helps to control disease pressures, and it enables us to pick cucumbers about 20 times compared to the four times we picked from the ground."

"Despite production troubles due to extensive rains, prices on Vidalia onions for 2009 were good overall," said Ms. Brannen. "Farms report prices fluctuated throughout the fresh and storage seasons but averaged out for a decent year."