COLLINS, Ga. — Alan Sikes tends to look at his Vidalia onion business the same way an old catfish looks at lunch.
“People used to use peanut driers,” Sikes said.
“But we didn’t bite on the first bait.”
Sikes used that approach when he designed his first drying room and it worked so well he added three more rooms for this year.
“We watched our neighbors and robbed from everyone’s designs. Then we designed our own, which are more fuel efficient and don’t subject the onions to such high heat. We put in the first one three years ago and upgraded the design for the new ones.”
The drying rooms at Sikes’ packing facility use a unique air-flow design to distribute heat through the 300 bins of onions that each room holds.
The heat not only dries and cures the onions, it kills the botrytis fungus, which took the Vidalia onion industry to its knees in the late 1990s.
Onions packed by Sikes Farms only have to spend about half the time in drying rooms as onions at packing operations that don’t use the same kind of forced air system, Sikes said.
With the short Vidalia season and the onions’ limited shelf life, that time translates into money, he said.
Sikes’ 600 acres of Vidalia onions are marketed under the Real Sweet label by Shuman Produce Inc., Reidsville, Ga., and have been since 1995.
Before the Vidalia season begins Sikes packs sweet onions from Peru and other growing regions for Shuman.
“We’ve got a year-round staff of about 45 packers and five technicians,” Sikes said. “During Vidalia season we bump up to about 100 packers.”
In addition to adding drying rooms for this season, Sikes added a full-time front office position.
Chad Sands joined the staff as director of food safety, logistics and traceability.
“You can’t just pay lip service to food safety. If you’re not willing to comply, you need to get out of the business,” Sikes said.