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Ogre driving Vidalia onion crop through wide-open market window

by Chip Carter | April 22, 2010
When it comes to the annual Vidalia, GA, sweet onion crop, Mother Nature is usually in the driver's seat. This year, though, she is riding shotgun while a large, green ogre steers the truck.

When the movie Shrek Forever After opens in theaters across America May 21, Vidalia onions will be right alongside familiar characters like Donkey, Princess Fiona and of course the world's most lovable ogre himself, Shrek, star of three previous films and countless related videogames, theme park rides and other paraphernalia that have racked up billions of dollars in revenue over the last decade.

This year's Vidalia crop will not be one of history's better ones. After a rough winter -- torrential rains in December followed by weeks of freezing weather in January and a too-cool spring -- the crop made up a lot of ground in late March and April. It will not be a bumper year, but supplies will be more than adequate. Yields will be off 10 percent or more, and size will be down -- expect a lot of medium-sized sweet onions from Georgia. But with weather problems elsewhere in the sweet onion-growing world, Vidalia will have a market window to itself this spring.

"The weather made it a challenge, but I tell you what, onions have always been a pretty resilient crop. These onions in the last three weeks have come a long ways," Michael Hively, chief financial officer of Bland Farms in Reidsville, GA, told The Produce News April 16. "If you'd asked us in December or January, we wouldn't have known what type of crop we would have. We really thought we had been damaged a lot."

According to data from the Vidalia Onion Committee, some growers started shipping as early as April 19, though the season's official harvest start date was set at April 27.

"The early crop is looking average -- definitely better than we had originally expected," said Wendy Brannen, executive director of the committee. "Disease pressure has been minimal, which is very positive and means the onions we do harvest are going to be good quality. For the mid-to-late crop, it's a bit too early to predict still, but we are having a small amount of seed stem issues -- some growers report up to 10 percent damage -- which is a result of the unusual weather patterns."

Getting a crop to market this spring was the first obstacle for Vidalia growers. "Sizing in the mid-to-late crop will be the next hurdle, as these plants are having to play catchup to size up to what is normal for a jumbo onion," Ms. Brannen said.

Mr. Hively said, "Even though our percentages are down, the crop is very healthy. There still is some worry about the late onions regarding size -- I think the sizing is generally going to be down a little bit -- but I think it's not going to be as severe as we once thought."

Last year, the Vidalia industry shipped 4.5 million boxes of onions from the 20-county region in Georgia that is the only place in the world that produces onions that can be marketed with the "Vidalia" label. Mr. Hively believes that this year's volume will total around 4 million. In other years, a surging market might offset the reduced tonnage. But this year, with a storage crop depleted by a long, hard winter and bad weather in other sweet onion-growing areas, the market is already strong.

"You can't help the market any more than it already is -- it's the highest market we've ever seen," Mr. Hively said. "The storage crop is almost completed and depleted, and the Texas crop has been a disaster along with the Mexican crop. Starting in the month of May, Georgia is going to have a huge window to themselves - one we've never seen before."

Even though the market is already solid, Vidalia onions are sure to get a boost when the new Shrek movie opens. The Vidalia Onion Committee has signed on with DreamWorks Studios alongside giants like General Mills and Bank of America as promotional partners for what is sure to be one of the summer's bigger films.

With the slogan "Shrek Forever After, Vidalias Forever Sweet," the summerlong campaign will feature point-of-purchase sales materials including box or display toppers, floor stands, recipe tear-off pads and shelf cards, all with a kid-friendly Shrek theme.

The campaign will also feature Shrek's image on bagged Vidalia onions and kid-friendly onion recipes based on Shrek characters. The campaign will be featured on 30 million milk cartons in major metropolitan areas across America. There will be a web site on which kids can check out Shrek and Vidalia onion games and other entertainment. There will also be contests for consumers and retailers. In fact, there is such a flurry of interest in the Vidalia-meets-Hollywood promotion that CNN has already done a story on the partnership.

"Everybody likes Shrek. He has such widespread appeal -- he appeals to children, to parents, across the board," Ms. Brannen said. "He's one of the most popular animated characters out there. In the [first] movie, Shrek says ogres are like onions because they have layers -- they set this whole thing up for us. Now we're using that appeal to talk about Vidalia onions."

The surplus of medium onions may actually work to the industry's advantage this year since "that is a perfect opportunity to sell more consumer packs -- we do use the mediums for those packs," Ms. Brannen said. "It's making lemons out of lemonade -- out of what Mother Nature has handed us. We have some new opportunities to increase our sales in different directions this year."