VIDALIA, Ga. — Although predecessors of Vidalia sweet onions date back to the Great Depression, the modern era of the trademarked Georgia onions is only about 40 years old, meaning the second generation of grower-shippers are pretty much running the deal now.
Some of the fathers and uncles are still involved, but for the most part their sons and nephews are now running the farms and packing houses, as well as the Vidalia Onion Committee, and that is turning out to be good news as far as Bob Stafford is concerned.
As general manager of the Vidalia Onion Business Council, Stafford has been working with these growers and shippers for 19 years.
“I see a move toward uniformity with growers working together for the good of the entire Vidalia onion industry,” Stafford said. “There’s a new generation and a young board in charge, and I believe they will achieve great things.”
Committee chairman Kevin Hendrix, who is vice president of Hendrix Produce Inc., Metter, agreed the committee membership is much younger now, with at least two-thirds of the members younger than 45. He said when he first served on the committee he was the youngest person in the room “by a long shot.”
Jason Herndon, manager at L.G. Herndon Jr. Farms, Glennville, is vice chairman of the committee and is even younger than Hendrix.
Herndon’s uncle, L.G. “Bo” Herndon Jr., founded the farm they both count on for their livelihoods. Bo was grower of the year in 2008 and was inducted into the Vidalia Hall of Fame in 2011.
The younger Herndon said he thought the competitive passion of the older generation was natural and that it is just as natural for the younger generation’s focus to have evolved to a different point.
He said all of the Vidalia growers have benefitted from the committee’s unified marketing efforts in recent years. He cited as an example the Ogres eat Onions campaign with the Dreamworks Shrek character that landed Vidalias on the front page of The Wall Street Journal.
The mindset that allows the next generation to more easily embrace unified efforts probably has to do with the fact that they are looking at their futures instead of their retirements, said several second-generation growers.
“The earlier generation was building their businesses,” said Brian Stanley, sales manager at Stanley Farms. “They had to look after their own instead of looking out for the greater good.
Hendrix had a similar take on the generational switch in focus.
“They paved the way for us,” Hendrix said. “Now we’ve got to keep it out of the ditch.”
Stanley said he thinks it is easier for the younger generation to focus on keeping the momentum going because Vidalias are being threatened by sweet onions from other regions.
“We don’t come to the table with old grudges,” Stanley said. “We come with a focus on research and the need to preserve our industry for our children.”
Jason Herndon agreed that research is one of the areas that the younger generation supports with enthusiasm, probably because they’ve already seen what it can do for them.
“In 1994 we were getting 300 to 350 boxes per acre,” Herndon said. “Now with better practices we shoot for 800 to 1,000 boxes per acre.”
He said growers now know about variable-rate fertilizer programs and have better seeds thanks to research efforts.
“But you still have to put your hands in the dirt to really know what’s going on,” Herndon said.