It’s been about 40 years since south Georgia Vidalia onion growers took what was once just a local favorite and turned it into an international food star. In fact, those farmers were so successful they created an entirely new category at the supermarket: The sweet onion deal that now goes around the calendar.
Vidalia still wears the crown in that category. But coming in a close second is the Peruvian sweet onion deal engineered by the same players who brought the Vidalia to prominence.
The success of the Vidalia led consumers to ask produce managers why they couldn’t have sweet onions all the time. That in turn led produce buyers to ask growers why. Which led Vidalia growers to ask that same question.
There had to be some place else in the world that could grow an onion comparable to the Vidalia, that same combination of soil and climate that would produce a perfect, sweet, low-pungency Granex onion that would be instantly familiar to Vidalia lovers.
The search was on. Texas (where the sweet onions that provided the parentage of the Vidalia came from), Mexico, Washington state, even New York contributed to the deal.
But it was Peru that provided the perfect counterpart to the Vidalia deal. The season starts in July and goes through January. The Vidalia deal begins in April and runs through August.
“The Peruvian onion is actually identical to a Vidalia onion in more aspects than one. The shape and the look and everything is identical. It’s hard to tell the difference between a Vidalia and a Peruvian, it’s the exact same seed,” said Delbert Bland of Bland Farms LLC in Glennville, GA, one of the first growers in the Peruvian deal. “The Peruvian is a little cleaner and looks a little better. You’re growing in a desert there so day in and day out the quality is better than in Vidalia, you don’t have the moisture issues so in turn you don’t have decay problems. You do have some problems down there but nothing compared to growing a crop in Vidalia.”
Even better, Vidalia obviously already had the infrastructure to process and ship onions. With the port of Savannah roughly an hour away, it was a simple matter to ship Peruvians onions to the U.S. and utilize packing sheds and labor that were sitting idle half the year.
Peruvian partners needed the business. U.S. growers had the market. It was a perfect match.
Soon, consumers were enjoying Peruvian sweets half the year when they couldn’t get Vidalias.
Now the Georgia Port Authority accounts for 8.4 percent of Georgia’s total employment and many of those jobs are attributable directly to the year-round sweet onion deal.
The Peruvian sweet is “well-established, it comes right on the heels of Vidalia and is the same variety we’re growing in Vidalia,” said John Shuman of Shuman Produce Inc. in Reidsville, GA, who grew his first Peruvian crop in 1998. “It’s a part of the culture now and a part of consumer expectations, they look forward to it on the shelf in the fall and winter. It’s an ideal growing region — sandy soil, temperate climate. We’ve got fair trade agreements with Peru and we are creating thousands of jobs there and in Georgia. It’s an economic driver.”
The deal obviously changed the lots of many Peruvians. Some U.S. companies partner with local growers and purchase a crop. Others have invested in infrastructure and control their own crop.
As a result Peruvian agronomy has improved dramatically. Long known for asparagus, Peru is now a major exporter of grapes and citrus as well.
The Peruvian economy has also improved. Which could change the face of the Peruvian sweet program. It’s easy to make a deal with a hungry man. When that same man has money in his pocket and options, things are different.
Said John Williams of Herndon Family Farms in Lyons, GA, which got into the Peruvian deal at the start of this decade, “I hear stories about how it used to be. The first year we were basically a broker, now we partner directly with a grower. They have the most sophisticated operation I’ve seen as far as sizing and packing and loading, keeping them cool under a nice shelter, not just a little tent. The growing down there is definitely getting more and more sophisticated. They’re setting up holding ponds for water to irrigate out of, there’s some major construction, like a facility for the pumphouse. I was amazed – this was really sophisticated farming.”
That kind of progress has spurred the competition from other crops.
Said Walt Dasher of Glennville, GA’s G&R Farms, “The grape production companies are able to pay a considerably higher wage to the workers and they are luring a lot more of the employees away from the normal onion/asparagus deal. It’s becoming huge business and taking so many more employees there’s the potential for it to become harder to find field workers and packing shed workers than they’ve ever experienced in the past. It doesn’t appear it’s going to be a big issue for anybody this year, but just sitting around and having coffee with guys down there, those are some of the concerns they see coming down the road.”
New crops are also competing for land and water. While there is plenty of available land, sweet onions are a particular crop — that’s why they’re not grown in, say, Alabama, or Kansas.
“Peru’s on fire with grapes, asparagus is making a comeback and it’s always been big down there, between all of it, what’s happening, there’s plenty of land, but only a limited amount suitable for onions,” Bland said.
There is also now competition for the Peruvian sweet crop. Spain, Colombia, the Netherlands, Nicaragua and Panama are now major markets for Peruvian onions.
“Competition comes in all kinds of forms,” Bland said.
What kind of impact that may eventually have on the Peruvian deal is unknown. Dasher said anecdotal reports suggest this year’s crop could reach less volume than in previous years, that some smaller growers have gotten out of the deal entirely and some larger ones have cut back.
Said Bland, “These farmers that you’re dealing with down there are in much better position than they were when we started. They either grew onions or they cut firewood up to sell and that’s a tough way to make a living. The economy has changed tremendously in the last 10 years especially, every year when I go back I’m impressed with how they’re growing and the things they’re doing down there. I used to have 45 different growers in Peru and we weren’t doing but about a third or half what we’re doing now — we had every little pig pen and everything you can imagine in every corner that would produce a couple hectares of onions. Now we have larger fields and irrigation and different things that permits us to grow a lot more acreage in a bigger area.”
Said Dasher, “I think you’re going to see it get harder and harder for the onion guys to find reasonable land to rent with water — and another big issue is what I call clean water, water that is suitable for irrigation purposes; we’re beginning to see some salt intrusion into some of the water passages down there, so you’re seeing a lot of scrambling around with all the growers, including grapes and asparagus — to find the clean water. That as a whole puts a lot more pressure on everybody. It’s a race against time to find the areas where they can have suitable water and land to rent or purchase and still be in a feasible financial spot.”
Natural Grocers, a 61-year-old family-run chain, will stake its claim this September as the official "Organic Month Headquarters." The company, which sells only 100 percent USDA Certified organic produce, will host an educational push for the entire month of September, which is nationally recognized as "Organic Harvest Month."
"Since we added produce racks to our stores in 1989 we have sold only organically grown produce. When the USDA finally established an officially recognized and regulated Organic standard in 2000, all the produce we sold already met that standard," Kemper Isely, Natural Grocers' co-president, said in a press release. "Other major grocery chains have recently begun to include organic options, but none of them sell exclusively 100 percent organic produce like we do. Our decision to sell only organic produce from the start is based upon our core founding principles of providing consumers with the highest quality product choices that are good4u, good for the environment and good for the economy. Claiming the title, 'Organic Month Headquarters' is our way of showcasing our commitment to organic produce and our customers."
For Organic Harvest Month, Natural Grocers' September will offer free organic apples for the first 400 customers at each Natural Grocers location on Sept. 1. It will also offer free classes where customers can learn about the benefits of choosing organic foods along with easy ways to incorporate organic vegetables into their everyday meals, including healthy tailgating options. A class titled "Fall in Love with Organics" will offer one winner at each class the chance to take home $50 for organic shopping in the store, and a bag full of 100 percent organic produce valued at $50. A second class titled "Elevate Your Tailgate," will offer healthy tailgating options for football fans.
The company will also provide free meal planners and recipes that educate customers on how they can incorporate more organic vegetables into their diets in an affordable way, as well as Sampling Saturdays each weekend with opportunities to sample a variety of organic produce.
An original song and video by Grammy Award-nominated Eco-Hip Hop artist DJ Cavem will also be part of the celebration. The song will be accompanied by a series of downloadable tips from DJ Cavem and Alkemia Earth on how to get your family to fall in love with eating more vegetables.
ReedTMS Logistics, a leading asset-based third-party logistics provider, is celebrating 20 years of business this month. Two decades of experience has helped to transform the company from a small startup to a leading organization within the logistics industry.
Founded in 1996 and headquartered in Tampa, FL, ReedTMS offers high-quality brokerage and freight management services along with private fleet services. In 2013 the company relocated to a 34,160-square-foot building to accommodate its growing staff. The facility included five acres of land, which ReedTMS repaved so company drivers can park their trucks and trailers onsite, resulting in more career opportunities for Florida-based drivers. To date, it has also grown to six branch offices across the United States.
The company was founded by Mark R. Reed with the promise of striving to provide the highest-quality service at all times. Today, ReedTMS remains a privately owned business that employs more than 220 people. The company continues to specialize in addressing the transportation needs of shippers throughout North America.
In celebration of embarking on a third decade of business, ReedTMS will be executing numerous promotional initiatives throughout this month in support of the 20th anniversary. The company will be hosting an event for all employees on Aug. 25 on-site to show gratitude to the staff that has made this journey possible.
“We at ReedTMS are extremely thankful to our many customers for being with us as we reach this milestone,” Jason Reed, chief executive officer, said. “Their feedback has shaped our company throughout the years, and their faith in our ability to support them has sustained us. We look forward to continuing to serve our valued customers for many years to come.”
Taylor Farms, in partnership with Labor of Love, gave thanks to two automated harvesting crews for their service to the agriculture industry this week. The automated Romaine harvester was introduced by Taylor Farms in 2009 and provides an ergonomically correct working environment to harvesting crews.
Taylor Farms employees and Labor of Love representatives caravanned out to a Romaine field in Watsonville, CA, to surprise the 34-person field crew with breakfast burritos during their 8 a.m. break. Each crewmember received a thank you letter from Taylor Farms along with a $20 Walmart gift card.
“At Taylor Farms people are the key to our success,” Christina Barnard, director of marketing Taylor Farms Retail, said in a press release. “Showing appreciation and support for their dedication and hard work is the foundation of our family culture.”
The hands-on effort, launched by the Yuma Fresh Vegetable Association, already reaches millions of people in surrounding communities. Labor of Love was established to gain awareness about the important contributions that farmworkers bring to our industry.
“Labor of Love is dedicated to thanking farmworkers for their service to the agriculture industry within our community,” Jenna Hanson Abramson, owner of Mavelle Media, said in the release. “We've had the opportunity to thank thousands of fieldworkers and share their stories with millions... way beyond Yuma and the Salinas Valley. It feels great to be able to partner with companies like Taylor Farms to show gratitude for these men and women because they work so hard and are always so appreciative when we surprise them in the fields. They deserve it."
The Labor of Love program will continue through September, highlighting different farm workers and their companies each week. In addition to the breakfast, stories will be shared and random acts of kindness in the fields will be under way.
Frieda’s Specialty Produce, based in Los Alamitos, CA, has debuted the first retail package for watermelon radishes, showing off the radishes’ vibrant internal color and with recipe ideas right on the bag.
Restaurants and food bloggers have already grabbed onto the more visually impactful watermelon radish — from thinly shaved onto a salad to quick-pickled for trending vegan/vegetarian grain bowls, poke (Hawaiian raw fish rice bowl), and bahn mi (Vietnamese sandwiches). The Huffington Post Food section recently featured radish recipes that include pickled and roasted radishes.
The one-pound stand-up pouch provides solutions for retailers by eliminating confusion about the PLU, extending the product shelf life, and moving more radishes off the shelf. Frieda’s signature branding also stands out in the refrigerated rack so it is easy to merchandise.
“The watermelon radish is truly a hidden gem of the produce department — most shoppers don’t know about its beautiful color on the inside just from looking at it on the shelf,” Karen Caplan, president and chief executive officer of Frieda’s Specialty Produce, said in a press release. “Our pouch showcases what these gorgeous radishes look like on the inside, which not only attracts the attention of shoppers, it also educates them about the product with serving suggestions on the back.”
Watermelon radishes are available from Frieda’s in 12 one-pound pouches and in 10-pound bulk.