VIDALIA, GA – It’s not uncommon for folks around here wish each other a “Happy Onion Eve” on the day before the annual Vidalia onion crop can officially be shipped – April 12 this year.
And while the greeting is offered in jest, there’s more than a grain of truth behind it. For Vidalia growers in the region, comprised of 13 Southeast Georgia counties and parts of seven others, the start of the annual season is Christmas, New Year’s and the 4th of July in one – especially in years like this one, with a bumper crop coming in from the fields on the heels of a crop that was just as good in 2016.
During the three previous seasons, weather and disease had ripped at the crop, taking bites out of the deal in a hard-luck cycle.
“Those years were tough. We had a lot of issues with freeze damage and disease pressure. It’s tough on the psyche. It’ll make you humble very quickly,” said John Shuman of Shuman Produce in Reidsville, GA, which markets its crop under the “RealSweet” label. “Last year built confidence back into the whole industry. And this year looks like we’re going to make two years in a row of very good crops and it’s going to be good for the whole industry — and for the retailer. They’re looking at a good crop, very promotable prices and I hope all our retail partners will get out there and push Vidalia onions because we’ve got a very good crop that’s about to get put into the pipeline.”
A remarkably warm winter pushed the season ahead of last year’s start by more than two weeks – this is the first time anyone around here can recall that Vidalia onions could be part of Easter dinner. The crop brushed off a late freeze and torrential rains that came near the end of the growing season to come on to market with a full head of steam.
“We’re very excited, this is a very unique crop. We’ve had just enough cold weather to make them dormant enough to make an excellent crop. Right now we’re in good shape,” said Delbert Bland of Bland Farms LLC in Glennville, GA. “If somebody around here’s not busy right now I need to know about it because they need to get moving.”
‘As long as Mother Nature doesn’t mess us up…’
“My dad’s been farming for decades and he’s never seen a growing season like this,” said Brian Stanley of Generation Farms in Lyons, GA. “We’re excited about what’s hitting the shelves. We toyed around with actually doing some Easter ads. There will be plenty of Vidalias around to be on Easter dinner tables.”
“As long as Mother Nature doesn’t mess us up, I think we’re very similar to what we had last year,” said Walt Dasher of G & R Farms in Glennville, GA. “The yields look very similar to last year and the volume. But a lot can happen between now and the time we get through getting them out of the field.”
The only crop most people here can think of that was any better came just last year.
“Last year was the biggest year the Georgia Vidalia onion crop has ever produced, according to any records I’ve seen and I’ve been doing this a long time,” Shuman said. “I don’t look for us to produce that big a crop, but we’re talking about a very nice crop with good size. These early varieties are heavy on jumbos and colossals, the mid- and late-season will trend down to a more normal size. We had record yields last year and we had excellent packouts and very good quality.”
Said Dasher, “Last year’s kind of hard to beat, to be honest with you. We needed a year like last year, we had some years that weren’t so good. So we were grateful for that and we’re grateful for where we stand right now. We feel very good about what we’ve got.”
Torrential rains in December washed up transplants and most growers had to replant some significant areas. But the warm winter made up for that.
“We’ve been blessed with a mild growing winter, if you can call it a winter,” Stanley said. “These onions, when they started growing they just kept on rolling. They’re beautiful. I see no roadblocks ahead. It’s going to be great quality and the size profile is going to be on the bigger size. It’s going to be as good as last year with this type of quality and the yields should be there too, just like last year.”
Minor Early Cosmetic Issues Will Pass Quickly
Said Bland, “It’s so competitive out there unless you have a disaster in another area, pricing is going to be relatively in the same range, so your bottom line is based off packout – that’s the amount of good onions you sell out of an acre of onions. And the packout is going to be extremely good and we’re excited about that. Sizing is just about right – we need a few mediums and jumbos and colossals and it’s running almost perfect right now.”
The only problem with the crop is a little bit of staining and darker skins on the very earliest onions and a few split onions due to perfect weather that made some grow so large they literally burst through their skins.
“It’s just a result of the growing season and a function of the weather – we didn’t have a winter,” Shuman said. “Normally you’ll get enough cold hours to make the plant basically start over after they’re transplanted but we didn’t get that. You’re going to see dark skin this first week, maybe the first two. But after that you’re going to see them really clean up, get a little brighter yellow and get that nice golden skin. The splits are easy to grade out but it could reduce yields a little bit. I don’t think we’re going to have the same packout. But standing here today in mid-April, without anything unforeseen, from here looking forward we’re going to have one of the nicest crops Georgia has ever produced barring last season. We’re in for a very good season.”
The Vidalia onion is a trademark of the state of Georgia. As such, the Department of Agriculture sets the official start date. And while Vidalia growers can pack and ship onions from their fields before the start date, none can carry the official Vidalia label until the state says so.
Early Start Date Brings Pressure to Clear the Fields
The early start date means “there will be some pressure to get these onions out of the field as soon as we can,” said Bo Herndon of L.G. Herndon Jr. Farms in Lyons. “It’s a great crop but we can’t waste time getting the fields cleaned up and getting it in the house.”
Vidalia onions are dug and left to dry several days in the field before moving into processing facilities, meaning good weather through the harvest is critical.
“Our forecast for the next 15 days looks good,” Dasher said. “Last year the weather stayed good for 30 days straight – great crop, great yields, perfect harvest weather and that’s what we need this year.”
This year, Vidalia onion acreage is down by a few hundred acres to around 11,250. That’s a good thing, according to Vidalia Onion Business Council Director Bob Stafford.
“We’ve got a customer base out there for 5-7 million 40-pound boxes. We tend to stick around 5 million,” Stafford said. “You don’t throw away Vidalias – you holler for more.”
And while Vidalias don’t fetch the premium they once did before sweet onions were a 12-month category at the supermarket, they typically do shore up a sagging market coming after Texas and Mexico sweet onions plug the gap between the end of the Peruvian sweet deal and Vidalia season start.
“They’re early, but that’s a good thing – we’ve got some of the best quality I’ve ever seen right now,” Stafford said. “We’ve got varieties now that are coming on that mature earlier and we’re happy with that, we need more of this April window.”