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Promotable volumes and good quality expected for Vidalia deal

Cooler weather will mean a later start to the Vidalia deal, following a pattern already established by other onion production areas this season, with volume not ramping up to full until a week or more after the mandatory April 21 pack and ship date recently established by Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Gary Black.

Frost earlier in the season took a bite out of this year’s crop, but at this early date it is impossible to project what that will amount to.Vidalia-1This sign welcomes visitors to ‘The Sweet Onion City’ of Vidalia, GA. Cool weather will mean a later start to the deal this year. (Photo by Chip Carter)

“We do have an issue in terms of what has been planted versus what the expectations were when we planted the crop,” said John Shuman of Shuman Produce in Reidsville, GA. “I’ve heard some predictions it’s going to be 20-25 percent down but even as late as March 18, I’m still not prepared to say that. We are going to have a slight reduction, but off of what? The hope of maximum yield? We don’t know sitting here in mid-March what that’s going to be yet. We will have a reduction from a 100 percent yield but as of right now we feel we’re going to have a nice crop in Vidalia.”

The mandatory pack date has caused some dissension among Vidalia growers in recent months, and a court case being heard as The Produce News went to press sought to overturn the commissioner’s ruling. Most Vidalia growers are in favor of a later start in order to make sure inferior early season product does not make it to market, but the matter will likely be moot in 2014 given the influence of weather.

“There will be onions available on April 21 but if you’ve got to buy that onion, don’t fill your pipelines up with it because it’s not what you need to promote and not what we want to ship from our farm. [As an industry] we’re looking at not having volume for 7-10 days after that,” said John Williams, sales and marketing manager for Herndon Farms of Lyons, GA.

Said Delbert Bland, owner of Bland Farms LLC in Glennville, GA. “We feel like we’ve got a good crop of onions, we don’t see anything to hold us back right now. If we get good warm weather we feel like our crop is well on the way to being as good as we’ve had in several years and it’s going to be very promotable.”

Early starts have bitten Vidalia farmers over the last two seasons. In 2012, cool, wet weather in March led to an early outbreak of downy mildew that reduced yields. Last year, more of the same meant an April outbreak of seed stem, which caused as much as a quarter of the crop to bolt. Both crops rallied in the second half, especially last year when a late push more than made up for lost early volume.

But some retailers had already moved on and missed out on prime promotions with the world’s best-known onion.

Bland said the industry hurt itself by “crying wolf” early in the season, scaring retailers off the crop. Other growers said they were simply trying to avoid promises they were not sure they could keep. Either way, all Vidalia growers are hopeful retailers will stick with the deal this year regardless of the late start or any other early-season difficulties that may arise.

“Patience would be very prudent right now,” Shuman said.

Since sweet onions get most of their growth in the last month underground, it is too soon to tell how this year’s crop will size up. Consumer demand for medium bagged Vidalias has boomed in recent years as many shoppers are replacing standard cooking onions with sweet onions year-round and especially during Vidalia season.

In fact, Williams is hoping for a few more mediums than the last couple of seasons in this year’s crop “because the consumer packs have just gotten so popular. But it’s too early to tell how the breakdown is going to be.

“Sweet onions are here to stay and retailers are doing a good job keeping them in front of consumers, keeping them on their shelves,” Williams said. “When Vidalias come in they’re like, ‘Now we won’t just carry bulk, we’ll carry bags too’ and they are looking for more ways to promote them in the stores. It’s a good thing.”