VIDALIA, Ga. — Scientists and growers are working to streamline the growing and harvesting process for Vidalia onions, the vast majority of which are individually touched by human hands at least four times before they reach retailers.
Most growers start their crops in densely planted seed beds and then have workers hand dig and transplant the seedlings to growing fields. Hand harvesting and grading of each onion takes more labor and further boosts costs.
Direct seeding into growing fields and mechanical harvesting could reduce labor costs, but the delicate nature of Vidalia onions has hampered those efforts, as far as most growers are concerned. Stanley Farms, Lyons, has been working to refine those processes and direct seeded about 20% of its 1,000-acre crop this year.
“Our direct seed fields came through (the cold snap) better than our transplants this year,” said Brian Stanley, sales manager for the family-owned operation.
“By using direct seeding and mechanical harvesting we have about a 50% savings because of the labor.”
Another grower, L.G. “Bo” Herndon Jr., said he tried direct seeding in recent years. He stopped because the onions were coming in smaller than his transplanted fields.
Herndon’s nephew, Jason Herndon, who handles operations at L.G. Herndon Jr. Farms, said mechanical harvesting is also problematic.
“One machine could do the work of about 20 people, and labor is always an issue, but if it rains you can’t get that big equipment into the fields if the onions are ready right then,” Jason Herndon said.
Reducing personnel and labor costs isn’t the primary reason for dabbling with direct seeding and mechanical harvesting, though, said Alan Sikes, president and owner of Sikes Farms, Collins.
“We prefer hand harvesting,” Sikes said. “But we are doing the R&D with mechanical harvesting. Direct seeding and mechanical harvesting is not to reduce costs.
“It’s so we have a fall-back plan if something happens with the labor availability. Any industry that is completely dependent on hand harvesting is gambling.”
Bob Stafford, general manager of the Vidalia Onion Business Council, agreed that the industry needs to make sure it has options.
“More and more growers are looking at direct seeding because of possible labor issues, even though they don’t get the same yields and weeds are a bigger problem,” Stafford said.
Those issues could soon be resolved, though, as scientists from the University of Georgia’s Vidalia Onion and Vegetable Research Center in Lyons work to perfect direct seeding and mechanical harvesting, said Cliff Riner, center coordinator and extension agent for Vidalia onions.
Riner said the center has been working on direct seeding for eight years. The center has a large test plot of direct seeded Vidalia onions and has been working with herbicide companies to develop products for such fields.
“In the next three to five years our research should lead to three new products for use on Vidalia onions,” Riner said.
“We’ve already figured out how to get yields very comparable to transplanted fields.”
Storage quality of direct seeded Vidalia onions is very good, Riner said, because they are usually firmer than transplanted onions. That is an attractive benefit for those who are working to develop export markets for Georgia’s official vegetable.
“You’ve got to have a firmer onion to stand up to two weeks on a ship,” Riner said.