Downy mildew disease is striking the Vidalia crop. Grower-shippers say the fungal disease, which damages onion tops so onion bulbs can’t size properly, could cut 20% of volume.
Downy mildew disease is striking the Vidalia crop. Grower-shippers say the fungal disease, which damages onion tops so onion bulbs can’t size properly, could cut 20% of volume.

(UPDATED COVERAGE, April 5) VIDALIA, Ga. — Vidalia onion grower-shippers worry downy mildew disease could cut early volume and harm up to one-fifth of the crop’s yields.

Retailers are preparing for possible smaller promotions for an item that normally sees high retail promotion.

Grower-shippers say the airborne fungal disease, which damages onion tops by preventing bulbs from sizing properly, is affecting all fields.

“In early March, we were very confident and felt very good that we had one of the best crops that we had in a long time, from a yield standpoint,” John Shuman, president of Shuman Produce Inc., Reidsville, Ga., said in early April.

“Now, downy mildew is working its way through the industry and everyone’s affected. For sure, Georgia will certainly produce a crop,” Shuman said. “It will delay production for some people and cut yields on some early varieties. It won’t devastate the crop but will cut yields.”

Richard Pazderski, director of sales for Bland Farms LLC, Glennville, Ga., estimates the disease could cut yields by up to 20%. He said the disease is leveling off, though.

“We don’t want to create a lot of panic in the industry,” Pazderski said April 3. “We will see some reduced yield and some smaller sizings. We will still see the same presence from the Vidalia industry as we always do. Overall, we’re still looking at a marketable crop. It just won’t be an abundant crop. There will still be enough for promotions and we will still have good volume.”

Citing the recent escalation of strawberry prices, Paul Berger, executive vice president and produce director for Food City Markets, Pearl River, N.Y., which operates stores in the New York metropolitan area, said high freight costs could make for more expensive Vidalia distribution and shortchange some markets.

Berger said the volume reduction shouldn’t harm availability for major markets such as New York, Chicago and California, but said he expects smaller markets to receive fewer supplies.

He said it’s uncertain if other sweet onion varieties including Maui Sweets can fill the difference.

“With the economy the way it is, I see just a slowdown in sales in general,” Berger said. “It would be hard to quantify exactly if the lower sales would lead to lower promotions or if the actual economic situation where people are spending $5 a gallon for gas will be willing to pay a premium for a sweet onion. I’m not sure if that’s going to fly.”

Jamie Brannen, partner with Statesboro, Ga.-based Curry & Co. of Georgia LLC and Sweet Vidalia Farms LLC, said he visited all the region’s fields and said the disease isn’t as bad in northern production areas.

He said he expects Curry to supply adequate volume.

“One of our fields has 20 acres of it where it’s bad, but the rest is okay,” Brannen said April 5. “It’s worse in some other fields further south. I think we will go at it in promotions. The only thing this may do is it may shorten the deal’s storage crop a little.”

Brannen said he expects the disease to lower the volume of jumbos and mediums. Medium-sized onions constitute the majority of bagged onions.

Shuman reported increasing sweet onion prices. He said 40-pound cartons of Texas grano sweet onions increased from $10 in late March to a $12-14 in early April, likely caused by unfavorable Texas weather and word of a smaller Vidalia crop.

Shuman said he expects the Vidalia deal to open at $16 for 40-pound cartons.

In mid-April last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported the deal opening with 40-pound cartons of U.S. No. 1 Vidalias selling for $12-14 for jumbos.

Pazderski said Bland plans to start its harvesting April 5, a week earlier than the April 12 official season start date a growers committee set March 12.

Shipments sent before the official date require inspection stickers of U.S. No. 1 from the USDA’s Federal-State Shipping Point Inspection Service.