This year’s Vidalia onion season was one for the record books and one growers say they’re preparing to prevent from happening again.
Downy mildew disease threatened the season shortly before growers began harvesting. The disease damages onion tops by preventing bulbs from properly sizing.
The airborne fungal disease cut yields, leaving noticeably fewer jumbos and colossals.
The season also ended prematurely.
Typically, growers can sell fresh harvest onions through late June before entering storage in early July. That storage can often extend sales to Labor Day.
This year, however, harvesting ended by late May and the last of the storage shipments were finishing the week of July 23.
In mid-July, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported June shipments down 37% from the previous June.
Delbert Bland, president of Bland Farms LLC, Glennville, Ga., said the season brought growers many frustrations.
He said Bland Farms, which normally is among the first to start and last to finish, was one of the first to finish. It finished its shipments July 16.
While the industry saw lower packouts and smaller sizes, Bland said the percentage of problem onions amounted to less than half of 1%.
He said he was impressed how growers dropped their competitiveness and worked together to pack a strong crop free of serious quality issues for their retail customers.
“Everyone kind of circled the wagons and we took an onion that was very average and made a good product out of it,” Bland said.
“It makes you really feel good when you look around and see a borderline crop that turns out to be not so bad after all,” he said.
Though he’s only grown Vidalias for five years, Aries Haygood, operations manager for Lyons, Ga.-based M&T Farms, said the industry’s rallying together helped growers manage a problem crop.
Haygood, chairman of the Vidalia Onion Committee, said the focus on shipping a consistent supply of quality onions during the dark season left a sweet taste in retailers’ mouths and should help encourage growers as an industry to return to a quality focus.
Growers and other industry members kept themselves and their retail customers updated on the situation through meetings and industry communications.
“What I take from people like Delbert Bland and John Shuman (president of Shuman Produce Inc.), big players in this industry that have been around a long time — they know how to market their crops,” Haygood said.
“It was interesting to listen to Delbert give his opinion on what we should look for in trying to go forward and what to anticipate from the buyers and consumers. A lot of us growers have our own issues as we struggle through the extra input costs we had to put into the onions to keep the disease down.”
Vidalia Onion Business Council manager Bob Stafford said it was the most unusual year he’s seen in 17 years in the deal and one that challenged growers with all kinds of adversities.
Stafford said the industry is responding by investing in research to help control the spread of the disease, which can remain in fields and reappear the following season.
Though he declined to state the dollar amount, Stafford said growers are investing considerably more than in the past and said the industry is leading an aggressive research effort to limit the disease and better prepare growers for future seasons.
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