VIDALIA, Ga. — For the third consecutive year, Mother Nature has been less than friendly to the Vidalia onion crop. Downy mildew hit the 2012 crop and seed stems reduced the 2013 volumes just before harvest began.
This year, freezes in January and lingering cold, wet weather in March and April combined for overall losses of at least 20%, slowed growth and are expected to delay harvest until late April.
However, growers and shippers are confident that they will have good volumes of Vidalia onions when they start shipping April 21.
Considering the relative shortages of sweet onions from Mexico and Texas in recent weeks, “May should bring some much needed relief to the sweet onion market,” said John Shuman, president of Shuman Produce, Glennville, which ships under the Real Sweet brand.
Even with the stand loss from freezes, Alan Sikes, owner of Sikes Farms, Collins, said the 2014 Vidalia crop should easily meet retailer and consumer demands.
“In some ways the stand loss could be considered a blessing,” Sikes said in early March. “Typically, as an industry, we are about 20% overplanted.”
An informal survey of the northern area of the 20-county growing region in early March by grower-shipper Robert Dasher revealed a 20% to 25% overall loss.
At that time, the onions expected to come in about halfway through the harvest season were dime to quarter size in diameter.
“You can see that none of the fields are a complete loss. But I saw some with 40% to 50% gone,” said Dasher, co-owner of G&R Farms, Glennville.
“There are areas in most (fields) where you can see the onions are just not coming along. Some people will be luckier than others. We’ll be OK at G&R, but we did lose a few.”
At Pittman Family Farms, Lyons, where some of the region’s earliest Vidalias are traditionally harvested, Mitchell Pittman said the crop looked strong and healthy in early March.
“We plant all of our onions at the same time and are early,” said Pittman, who owns and operates the farm with his brother Kyle, father Timothy and uncle Jerry, collectively known in the area as the Pittman boys.
“We like to get the harvest done in 10 days so we can get the next crop in,” Mitchell Pittman said, adding that the family grows a variety of commodities, with all of their fields serving double duty.
The cold weather in March wasn’t too much of a worry for Delbert Bland, president and owner of Bland Farms, Glennville.
He said most of the Vidalia onion growth comes in the last month before harvest, with the onions growing about an eighth of an inch every 24 hours.
“With the shortages in Texas and Mexico the market will be a little different this year for Vidalias, though. Today (March 6) 50-pound bags in Texas are $26. Demand is going to be high for all yellow onions as it was in 2011 and it will be even higher for Vidalias.”
L.G. “Bo” Herndon Jr., owner of L.G. Herndon Jr. Farms, Lyons, agreed that there should be good supplies of jumbos for bulk shipping.
He said he expects about 70% jumbos and colossals and about 30% mediums.
“The onions are coming in clean and good,” Herndon said. “They will be a little later, though. The big volumes won’t come out of Georgia until May.”
At Stanley Farms, the hard freeze came early enough for the family-owned operation to replant. Brian Stanley, sales manager, said those re-plants will come in at the same time as the rest of the crop.
He said one of the county extension agents from the area told him the overall loss for the industry would probably be 25% to 30%, unless late-season complications disrupt the growth cycle.