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Excellent weather and a solid market have Vidalia growers optimistic heading into 2013 deal

VIDALIA, GA — Drenching rains that soaked most of the South Georgia Vidalia onion-producing area dumped 14-17 inches of water on the 2013 crop in the last two weeks of February. But what could have been disaster turned into a positive when strong winds followed the rains and dried the crop heading into what now appears to be a promising market.

“That could have been a problem, but with the winds coming in right behind and drying everything Vidalia-front-2Rain soaked most of the South Georgia Vidalia onion-producing area, but strong winds followed and dried the crop.out, the rain should give the crop just a little boost of extra sweetness this year,” said John Shuman of Shuman Produce Inc. in Reidsville, GA.

In 2012, high early-season heat, humidity and excess moisture allowed a virulent strain of downy mildew to flourish, taking out as much as a third of some growers’ crops. This year, there are no signs of disease or pest pressures — but the industry is keeping a wary watch.

“We were waterlogged for a few days but we had some wind come through there to help dry it out, we’ve been able to get out there and do some spraying and we haven’t seen any problems so I think we’re going to have a really good Vidalia crop and we’re really excited about that,” said John Cameron, director of sales for Glennville, GA-based Bland Farms LLC.

Excellent weather resulted in a great set and the season should get off to a slightly earlier start than normal.

“We’ve got good size and jumbos in the field right now, we’re actually kind of having to hold off a little bit,” Richard Pazderski, director of business development for Utah Onions Inc. told The Produce News in mid-March. Utah Onions, headquartered in Syracuse, UT, will be marketing Vidalias for the first time this season under a new partnership with Gerrald’s Farms of Statesboro, GA. “Typically we would be a week behind everybody else because we’re in the northern zone but I think we’re going to be one of the earlier shippers coming off. A lot of people are planning to ship by April 10 or 12 and typically we’d be April 15-17 but I’m confident we’ll be shipping by April 5.”

An early start would be welcomed by retailers since Northwestern storage supplies are dwindling, Mexican fresh product is down to a trickle and sweet onion acreage in Texas has dropped by 40 percent over the past two seasons. That sets Vidalia up for a solid market that should carry through spring and perhaps throughout the entire summer.

“The market will continue on the same path for Vidalia that it is on now with other onion markets. There’s not a lot of volatility in the market right now, thank goodness,” said Walt Dasher of G & R Farms in Glennville, GA, whose late father Gerald Dasher was inducted into the Vidalia Onion Growers Hall of Fame in February. “Of course Mother Nature is the true deciding factor in any market. Look what happened with us last year with downy mildew at the end of the growing season. It changed our life basically overnight. March in Georgia can be ‘March Madness’ with weather.”

The big worry now is that a single seller can tank the market by dropping prices early in the season, starting a race to the bottom. Vidalia growers have pledged to stand united out of the gate. If they hold to that promise, all will benefit.

Mike Martin of River Queen LLC in Mission, TX, one of that state’s larger onion growers, recently said, “There are sweet onions all over the place so we can’t control the category and if anybody has control it’s Vidalia when they start.”

Mr. Dasher agrees. “Vidalia definitely has the best name recognition. But until true growers handle their own program you never will [be able to present a unified front]. Nothing against marketing firms but you only learn good lessons when it hits you really hard financially. Until true growers really learn the demands of what it takes to keep a business profitable… guys jockeying for market share will cause it to trend downward.”

Added Mr. Pazderski, “I don’t think this is one of those killer home run years for Vidalia but I think it’s going to be a good opportunity for a solid promotable market for people in the onion deal period from here until August. Vidalia certainly has the opportunity to make money this year, I think we have an opportunity to manage the deal responsibly and provide both value to the customer and favorable returns to the growers. The crop is marketable, it’s big enough, we’re going to have a good crop, but we’re going to need to take into account what’s going on nationwide and how Vidalia fits into that. There are a lot of different avenues people can look at to keep from dropping the market.”