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'Double whammy' worries Vidalia growers

by Chip Carter | January 14, 2010

A "double whammy" of wet and cold weather has Vidalia onion growers worried about this year's crop.

While "it's not time to hit the panic button," heavy rains during December plantings followed by atypically cold weather in south Georgia will lead to some damage to this year's Vidalia crop, according to Wendy Brannen, executive director of the Vidalia Onion Committee.

"We're kind of in a 'hurry up and wait' pattern," Ms. Brannen told The Produce News Jan. 12. "We've seen some prolonged cold -- seven to 10 days at this point -- so that means that more than likely we will sustain some loss. I am starting to have some farms report that there is loss. Overall, I've had reports of anything as low as 3 percent loss all the way up to 30 percent loss. But let me be very clear that it is both due to the rains during the [December] planting, and now starting to see some of the cold damage."

Ms. Brannen said that about half of the growers she represents have recorded crop losses of at least 20 percent.

"Farms representing almost half of our industry have indicated to me that they have had at least a 20 percent loss at this point. That's coming from their agronomists. That's a pretty solid source that there has been some significant plant loss in what is roughly half of our industry," Ms. Brannen said. "When I do have a few farms that report losses that high, it does mean there is cause for concern."

The Vidalia production area, comprising all of 13 southern Georgia counties and parts of seven others, was inundated with four inches of rain over six days during the critical December planting period.

Those rains were responsible for "the brunt of the loss we're reporting," Ms. Brannen said. "We had reports of the little plants literally floating through the fields - it's like a river of onion plants when you get that much rain at one time when they've just been planted. I had farmers in other counties ask if I saw some of their plants floating by." The new year brought freezing temperatures that exacerbated the problem. The average low temperature in Vidalia in January is 38 degrees. From Jan. 2 to 13, lows each night dipped below freezing, bottoming out at 21 degrees Jan. 11.

"It's normal for us to have a freeze here and there, but when you get into three and four days of cold, that's when it really starts to sink in. Three or four days always worries us; when we get into seven to 10 days, it's a big problem," Ms. Brannen said. "But it's not time to hit the panic button yet. It is a hardy crop."

Even with losses from rain and cold, Ms. Brannen said that there will be an ample Vidalia onion crop. The primary concern is size; most of the losses were sustained by plants that would have had time to produce jumbo onions in the seasonal growing window. Now, some growers will try to replant and make do with more medium-sized onions.

"We're a short-day onion, and that crop has to go into the ground at a certain time because of that seed type. We did have some warm, favorable conditions for the early crop that was planted in November; those early plants are typically expected to be harvested in April. Those plants have had heavy growth already [and] those were the plants that we were expecting to be hit the hardest by the cold the last few days," Ms. Brannen explained. "The crops planted later - November, December, the ones that made it through the rain - were expected to fare better if we could get warmer temperatures, but after seeing the weather, we are starting to get nervous about the crop to be harvested in May."

Ms. Brannen added, "As we continue on into the month of January, the planting window does narrow for us. By late January, any plants that are set out won't have time for the onions to size up to jumbo, which is the predominant size on retail. So we may see some results from late planting, but it will more than likely be mediums, and that's not necessarily the goal at this point, considering that we have lost some plants. The goal would be to go back in and replant what you've lost immediately to turn out some more jumbos, but that window is definitely narrowing on us quickly because of the frozen ground, and the continued cold is not helping with that. I do know that some farmers, despite the colder temperatures, are trying to get out there and plant, but those are less-than-ideal circumstances putting those plants in that very cold ground."

The Vidalia industry has been hit hard over the last two seasons by a "double whammy" of soaring fuel and fertilizer prices in 2008 and extensive rains during harvests in 2009, "so we were all kind of hoping for an easier year," Ms. Brannen said. "But we are getting walloped on the front end of our season this year, which almost makes you more nervous -- it's a long road we're looking down until mid-April."

"The good news is we have had sunshine this week, some good solid days of sunshine. It is way too early to predict gloom and doom for the season overall. Even if we do lose more plants to cold, there should be ample plants to get onions out on the market, although it won't be easy," Ms. Brannen said. "The prevailing theme for all of us at this time is it is just too early to know. But it's better to be optimistic than pessimistic about it."