Shuman Produce Inc. of Reidsville, GA, has seen its Peruvian onion deal grow in the last few years to become one of the industry’s largest, and the company also grows in California, Idaho, Texas, Chile and Mexico. But the Vidalia is still the crown jewel of the company’s program, and President John Shuman believes the new mandatory ship date established recently by the Georgia Department of Agriculture will make his program and the industry stronger.
“Being born and raised in the Vidalia sweet onion industry, we have a very good understanding of the product and what we’re trying to deliver to the consumer,” Shuman said. “We grew up around the best sweet onion out there and we understand fully what it should look like and taste like, so we’ve gained experience over the years cultivating and bringing to market these varieties.”
Though there is indeed demand for early season Vidalias, research has not been able to keep pace. Over the last decade or more that has led to lower quality product to kick of the Vidalia onion season each year. Starting in 2014, no grower can pack or ship Vidalias before 12:01 a.m. on the Monday of the last full week of April each year, which will be April 21 for the upcoming season.
“It’s important to remember all of us have the best interests of the Vidalia industry at heart, but I do feel in an effort to extend the season there’s been too much focus put on early varieties,” Shuman said. “Demand from the industry has driven seed companies to spend more time and effort to develop early varieties and there has been progress in that area. But it hasn’t come fast enough or timely enough, those early varieties simply don’t exhibit the characteristics of a Vidalia onion. We’ve got to protect the brand.”
The early start has also sometimes resulted in Vidalia growers coming up short on retail deals, which typically run four-to-six weeks ahead of any promotion, due to weather-related problems.
If retailers “have an early April go date in Vidalia, you’re looking at making that commitment in early March,” Shuman said. But at that time of year in Georgia, “you’ve got four-to-six weeks of very wild fluctuations in weather.”
This year, most of the months of March and April were cooler and wetter than normal in Georgia “and the crop just would not finish,” Shuman said.
“Long term, the mandatory pack date is going to be a great benefit to the industry,” Shuman said. “It’s going to give retailers confidence it’s time to go to market. It’s going to relieve a little of that early season market pressure. It’s going to give seed companies confidence and time to focus on improving early varieties. And finally, it’s going to give the consumer confidence. We’re going to put a better product on the market.”