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Vidalia industry weathers storm, expressing cautious optimism

by Lora Abcarian | March 30, 2011

Time will tell just how much actual damage Vidalia sweet onion fields sustained in the aftermath of a severe storm March 27 which pummeled portions of Georgia's Vidalia onion growing district with golf ball-sized hail.

A severe hailstorm that hop scotched through the Vidalia onion growing district March 27 caused light to severe damage to the production area. The Vidalia Onion Committee is optimistic that damage to this year’s crop will be minimal. Onions not hit by the storm were in good shape. (Photo courtesy of Shuman Produce Inc.)

Wendy Brannen, executive director of the Vidalia Onion Committee, expressed cautious optimism March 30 about the coming crop. Looking at the industry as a whole, it is believed that damage, when finally assessed, will be minimal.

"Hail is like any other element of Mother Nature. It doesn't hit in a precise manner," she told The Produce News March 30. "The first thing to remember is that Vidalias are grown in 13 counties and parts of seven others."

This season, 12,448 acres were planted to Vidalias. Acreage hardest hit was located in Bullock, Tattnall and Evans counties. "These are certainly significant counties," Ms. Brannen stated.

Preliminary figures released by the Vidalia Onion Committee estimated that 650 to 1,200 acres throughout the growing district were affected by the storm. While losses to individual farmers are tragic, she said that the industry as a whole will weather the storm.

"In talking to farmers, two things are clear," Ms. Brannen commented. "The onions not affected by hail look pretty good. And this storm just hit. We will need more time to assess actual damage."

She went on to say that ample volumes of quality jumbos have retained their quality. Barring further complications, Ms. Brannen said, a quality crop will move to the marketplace this season.

Michael Hively, chief financial officer and general manager of Bland Farms LLC in Vidalia, GA, said that the company came through the storm unscathed. "It hasn't affected our growers," he told The Produce News as rainfall continued March 30. "Our growers dodged a bullet. And so did we."

Bland Farms does not grow Vidalias in the northern Tattnal or Bullock counties, where the most severe damage occurred. "Right now, we have a beautiful crop."

The company and its growers account for 40 percent of all Vidalia volume.

John Shuman, president and director of sales for Shuman Produce Inc. in Reidsville, GA, said in a March 29 statement that damage to the company's fields was consistent with industrywide observations. Because Shuman Produce had increased its Vidalia plantings by 10 percent this season, losses associated with the storm were minimized.

"We're very confident about our crop despite these losses, and I feel like we are well positioned for good yields and excellent quality this year based on the way our crop looks in the field right now," Mr. Shuman said in the statement.