Vidalia onion supplies may be tighter

04/03/2012 05:18:00 PM
Doug Ohlemeier

Courtesy Shuman ProduceDowny 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.”


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