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Banner Vidalia season concluding

by Chip Carter | August 01, 2010
A short nine months ago, the Vidalia, GA, onion industry was looking trouble square in the eye. Torrential rains in December washed away plantings. Abnormally cold weather followed in January and February. March was too cool and too rainy. Growers wondered if the season could be salvaged.

With the last of the Vidalia storage crop expected to be shipped by mid- August, growers may now be wondering if they will ever have another year as good as this one. Despite early losses to weather, later-season weather was perfect, production was solid, crop quality was spectacular, markets stayed strong and a promotional tie-in with the summer movie 'Shrek Forever After' was a bona fide smash.

"It’s been an interesting year because you did have a high demand for onions going into our season," said Wendy Brannen, executive director of the Vidalia Onion Committee in Vidalia, GA. “So we were looking good — but then we hit some road bumps when it came to the weather during our growing season, which kind of put a damper on things. But then it kind of bounced back in the other direction because of the success of our Shrek program. So if I had to sum up this season, I’d say it’s just been a rollercoaster because we went from a high point to a low point back up to a high point. But we rode it out. It’s actually turned out to be quite a good year for us.”

This was a season of surprise and serendipity for Vidalia growers. The foul weather in the early season was offset by excellent conditions in April and May. A shortage of jumbo onions due to replanting actually turned into a bonus, since the surplus of mediums that resulted were well suited to the Shrek bagged onion promotion. Featuring characters from the popular movie, recipes and games, the kid-friendly packages flew off store shelves all summer and the campaign gained attention from media outlets including CNN, The Wall Street Journal and the ABC Evening News.

In fact, this year’s Vidalia season is wrapping up a couple of weeks early in part due to weather losses (about 20 percent of the crop industrywide) but primarily because the Shrek promotion has been such a success that the resulting sales spike drained storage supplies sooner than usual.

Even as late as April 1, Vidalia growers could only guess what kind of crop they were facing. With plant losses running as high as 35 percent at some farms and cool, rainy weather continuing through March, the odds of a banner year were slim.

“I tell you what saved it: The end of March, the first of April, the rain stopped, like you cut the valve off,” said John Shuman of Shuman Produce Inc. in Reidsville, GA. “The temperature warmed up, the clouds went away and the sun came out. If you were sitting there on April 1 and said, ‘I have to have this, this and this when it comes to weather to make this crop,’ that’s what we got. It was the best-possible scenario from April 1 to May 10. Five or six weeks made this crop and saved this industry millions of dollars. Everything people were saying in mid-March, not knowing if we were going to make a crop, was true. We didn’t know the weather was going to turn out perfect — but it did. It was a blessing.”

Shuman’s production was up — despite some plant losses — due to increased acreage, and the company saw double-digit increases in sales over last year in May and June.

Bland Farms LLC in Glennville, GA, experienced similar success after early misgivings.

“If you’d asked somebody before harvest how bad the crop was going to be off, we’d have probably told you 35-40 percent,” said Richard Pazderski, Bland’s director of sales. And while production was down due to early weather losses, the company actually made up ground because “the quality was so good we didn’t lose as much on packout as normal. It’s been a great season for us, great quality, great volume — I’d like to have a season like this every year.”

Messrs. Pazderski and Shuman both credited this season’s success to the Shrek promotion.

“For the Vidalia industry, the Shrek program was tremendous,” Mr. Pazderski said. “We had very good visibility all throughout the fresh season into storage. We had a lot of requests for it. We started the season two weeks late, but by the end of the fresh season and even before the end of harvest, our consumer bag business was up 20-25 percent, I think primarily due to the Shrek program. For us, as we headed into harvest this year, we were very concerned about having medium and small onions and not enough jumbos. But as we continued to sell through the season, we realized pretty quickly we were going to be short on storage for medium onions.”

Mr. Shuman said, “Wendy Brannen did an excellent job. It’s one of the better promotions the Vidalia industry has ever done. As an industry, it gave us national exposure. And it came in a great year because we had a lot of medium product due to weather. And 95 percent of our mediums go into consumer bags. From that standpoint, it helped stabilize our market and increase demand. I think the industry as a whole benefited from the national exposure, and I certainly credit the Shrek promo for giving the industry an incremental sales bump. Now everybody’s looking for ways to keep those bumps and increase consumption and not give it back after the promotion.”

While there will still be Vidalia onions available in markets for a bit longer, they will become increasingly rare as August draws to a close. With inclement weather delaying production in other areas, there may be a short gap in sweet onion supply.

Bland will transition from Vidalias to its New York state “Empire Sweets” beginning Aug. 2, and both crops will run concurrently for a couple of weeks. As the Vidalia supply is exhausted, Bland’s Peruvian onions will “start shipping in earnest” the last week in August, Mr. Pazderski said. The company should have domestic and imported sweet onions available through the fall.

Shuman anticipated a shortfall in this season’s Vidalia crop and planted its Peruvian crop in February rather than waiting until March, as is typical. The company expected its first arrivals of Peruvian sweets Aug. 2, with shipments continuing the following week, and it is anticipating “a smooth transition” from Vidalias to Peruvians occurring mid-month.

“We’re going to slide into mid-August with a few Vidalias left, then we expect a good deal out of Peru,” Mr. Shuman said. “The crop looks great — they’re big, they’re nice, they’re pretty. The market seems to be holding steady. We expect a smooth transition.”

The onion market was solid and holding steady as of July 28. Jumbos were going for $28, while mediums brought $26, and, as Mr. Pazderski said, “It’s hard to complain about that.”