Late cold snap has no impact on Vidalia deal, early start means April 12 ship date

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When Vidalia onion growers saw eight inches of rain dumped on their crop on a particularly nasty day in December, there was little thought that this year’s crop might shape up to challenge last year’s banner deal, much less provide one of the earliest start dates in recent memory.

But, despite a late season cold snap the week of March 13, that’s exactly what has happened, thanks to an exceedingly mild winter and almost perfect onion growing weather in the region for the past three months. As a result, growers will start shipping Vidalia onions April 12, a full two weeks ahead of last year.

“Truly, it’s been one of the mildest winters we’ve had that I can ever remember,” said John Shuman of Shuman Produce Inc. in Reidsville, GA. “The trees were blooming and the azaleas were in full bloom in Reidsville, GA at the end of February and I don’t know that I’ve ever seen that. Things look good in the field, the crop looks good and clean and is sizing well and hopefully these things will continue.”

“The onions are going to be ready to go – it’s too late to tell Mother Nature any different,” said Kevin Hendrix of Hendrix Produce in Metter, GA. “Now it’s coming on us pretty quick. Some [retailers] will probably even have an Easter ad, depending on how quick they can get them out to the stores.”Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Gary Black sets the official start date (typically following a consensus recommendation by growers) for the Vidalia onion season since the state of Georgia controls the trademark. Over the past few years, there have been regular battles about how soon growers should be able to begin shipping sweet onions with the Vidalia label attached. Growers can begin shipping their crop before the date the commissioner sets, but early season onions can only carry a label identifying them as sweet onions from Georgia, not the market-topping Vidalia label.

Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Gary Black sets the official start date (typically following a consensus recommendation by growers) for the Vidalia onion season since the state of Georgia controls the trademark. Over the past few years, there have been regular battles about how soon growers should be able to begin shipping sweet onions with the Vidalia label attached. Growers can begin shipping their crop before the date the commissioner sets, but early season onions can only carry a label identifying them as sweet onions from Georgia, not the market-topping Vidalia label.

Some worry that retailers will take the early start date as yet another variable in that debate.

“On the record, I want us to be very careful how we portray this moving forward,” said Walt Dasher of G&R Farms in Glennville, GA. “I’m going to get asked by buyers, ‘Can we expect this to be the case every year?’ and the answer to that question is no. When we announced the date the buyers grilled me the next day: ‘When’s it really going to be?’ Listen, the crop is what it is, it’s going to be ready when it’s ready. Next year we may very well be back to April 25th. But right now we’re set for the 12th and that was the consensus. There were two or three [growers] who voted for April 16-17, but the biggest majority came in April 11-13. So we decided on the 12th. It’s going to be a good thing, the crop looks great and I think we’re going to be good to go.”

Said Delbert Bland of Bland Farms in Glennville, GA, a proponent of an early start date and typically the first Vidalia grower to start harvesting and shipping, “The guys are beginning to realize heat units dictate when the onions are ready, not the calendar. I was real pleased with that and everybody was unanimous on it. We should start digging April 1 and begin shipping around the 8th. We’ll ship with the Georgia Sweets label for three or four days before we switch to Vidalia onions on the 12th. I feel better about it than I have the last few years, that’s for sure.”

As for debate about the start date, “We’re past that and I think everybody understands that we’ve all got the best interests of the industry at heart – we came together and made the decision as a group and we’re going to be going to market on April 12,” Shuman said.

The heavy rains in December washed away freshly transplanted seedlings and there was concern early on that the overall crop might take a hit.

“We had a few onions to wash out of the hillsides and things like this but overall our stands are actually better than last year. You‘re going to lose some of that crop every year to weather and rain – you get eight inches of rain on a freshly planted Vidalia crop you’re going to lose some. There aren’t many years you can have Vidalias on an Easter menu. We don’t really have a lot of days there to get them out but we’ll get as many out there as we can for Easter. It’s time.  [Buyers and consumers] are already getting ready and getting excited about them and they’re going to get them about 15 days earlier.”

Added Dasher, “We’ve seen very little damage or issues with the crop. Of course we were concerned with that 8 inches of rain that dumped on us in 2 hours in December. We were concerned that we could have an issue with disease. But God has blessed us, the sun started shining, the weather was good, the temperature stayed good and the weather pattern after that storm couldn’t have been any better. It never started raining and humidity stayed low so there was no disease because it never had a chance to start breeding. I think we’re going to be very close to last year. As long as nothing changes, the weather holds and Mother Nature doesn’t throw any curveballs, it should be very similar to last year.”

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