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Near-perfect crop has Vidalia set up for strong season

Shorter sweet onion supplies out of Mexico and Texas and consistency issues in both deals have the Vidalia onion deal set up for a promising season that could begin for some growers as early as the second week of April.

“We’re having a really crazy time with these Mexican onions, it’s been hard to keep supply and the quality has been spotty. Texas is going to have a fairly inconsistent crop as well and it’s coming off late. Somehow or another they’ve ended up with Vidalia’s weather and we’ve ended up with Texas’ weather,” said Delbert Bland of Bland Farms LLC in Glennville, GA, which grows onions in all three locales.

“Right now, as of today, the Vidalia crop looks very nice — so nice you’re kind of looking over your shoulder wondering what’s going on and sleeping with one eye open,” said John Shuman of Shuman Produce in Reidsville, GA, who also grows onions in all three areas under its “RealSweet” label. “Here in mid-March, despite a wet winter with 20 inches of rain in since mid-December, the crop looks very clean, very nice, so we’re hopeful. We’ve still got four-to-six weeks before it’s all done, so humility and caution are called for, but if this crop finishes like this we’ll have very good supplies to meet any level of demand.”

Early spring weather has been warm in Vidalia, following a winter of dramatic temperature shifts with very cold snaps followed by unseasonably warmer periods. Rain has been adequate and come at the right times, including crop refreshing showers in mid-March that moved out in plenty of time to keep the fields dry for harvest.

“We’ve gotten a few warm days in the last 10-12 and I’ve really seen a change in the color of the shoots and the plants have put more shoots on,” said Robert Dasher of G & R Farms in Glennville. “We’ve had some rain in the last two or three weeks but it was a small amount, not two and three and four inches, so the fields are drying out, the plants are getting more oxygen and the soil temperature has warmed up.”

All of which bodes well for the Vidalia crop.

“I hesitate to say so, but it’s looking like as near a perfect crop as you’ve ever seen,” said Steve Roberson of Roberson Onion Co. in Hazlehurst, GA. “At this point the onions I’ve seen — and I haven’t seen all of them — are in really good condition.”

John Williams, sales and marketing director for Herndon Family Farms in Lyons, GA, agreed. “The crop is looking really good given the winter we’ve had. It’s been really cold, but the tops are really healthy right now. We had a lot of rain recently too but everything seems to be surviving and doing well.”

There have been no reports of disease or mildew, but the up-and-down winter could potentially result in some bolting, where part of the crop goes to seed, some growers say.

“The only thing that concerns me a little is we’ve had some pretty drastic and sudden changes in temperature,” Dasher said. “We haven’t seen any sign of disease or mildew, but that doesn’t mean we won’t. That could trigger seeders because we’ve had so many variations of temperature — but I might be totally wrong. Dramatic change throws the onion into shock and creates more of a chance of seeders. There may be as much as 20 percent (of the crop) but may not be even one percent. Only time will tell. We’re monitoring very closely and sticking to our spray schedule, but I’ll feel more comfortable when the onions are made.”

Added Bland, “I’m sure there will be some hiccups along the way and we still have this last phase of the moon the latter part of March that could bring some seeders, but overall seeders have never been a major issue for us and we’re pretty confident that there won’t be any more than normal.”

Even if a percentage of onions bolt, there will still be more than enough Vidalias to go around with more than 12,000 acres in the ground.

“If there’s 20 percent out I don’t know that everybody wouldn’t still be better off in the long run,” Dasher said. “If it’s evenly distributed around we’d all be probably better off. We all might make a little more money.”

Farming is changing in Vidalia. The crop that made the region famous is still top of the heap by far, but the success of the world’s most famous sweet onion has growers moving in other directions as well. Many growers have diversified farming programs that include everything from corn and greens to grain and cattle.

Now, organic Vidalias are a growing, though still small, presence. Several growers have had significant success with sweet potatoes, once a Georgia farm staple that got pushed to the side in favor of other crops until recent soaring consumer popularity put it back on the radar. Others are experimenting with, or considering, blueberry orchards and pecan groves.

But the Vidalia onion is still king of the hill.

“Back in the 80s and 90s this industry was just exploding,” Shuman said. “That prosperity built a lot of infrastructure, some of the most technologically advanced facilities in the world. That has allowed us to diversify our operations into timber and pecan and tree fruit production, row crops, all sorts of different things. It allowed us to maximize this asset base and dilute the tremendous cost of infrastructure. The economic impact to the State of Georgia is practically immeasurable. And this year, I think Georgia’s in a position to bring some much-needed relief to the sweet onion market -- as of today it looks like we’re going to bring some good volume to the market.”