VIDALIA, Ga. — With college basketball fans anxiously awaiting the 2013 championship in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome April 8, Vidalia onion growers are experiencing their own version of March Madness as some expect to begin shipping the same day as the big game.
“We’ve got our own kind of March Madness here,” said Walt Dasher, co-owner of G&R Farms, Glennville. “There’s so much that can happen in late March — hail, temperature fluctuations — and last year we didn’t see some of the issues with the downey mildew until we had started packing.”
Dasher said conditions look favorable for average to slightly above average yields in the G&R fields. He expects sizes to be average and slightly larger than typical.
However, a storm front rolled across the country the first weekend of spring and dumped 2-4 inches of rain across the Vidalia growing region.
Richard Pazderski, director of development for Utah Onions, said there were even reports of hail around the Glennville area, but he hadn’t seen it himself.
Most growers polled March 25 said the rain was a concern, but predictions of cold overnight temperatures for the last week of March were more troublesome.
“We need to make sure the necks are beginning to dry before we start digging,” Pazderski said. “This weather may slow us down a couple of days, but not too much longer.”
On March 25, Dasher revised his anticipated start date, saying the rain and cold could push shipping back to April 15-20.
Rain had roots gasping
Ronny Collins, chief executive officer of Plantation Sweets, Cobbtown, said he uses an old-time rule of thumb to help him determine when his Vidalias are out of danger.
“They always said until you see the full moon at the end of March, you aren’t safe from seed stems and other problems,” Collins said.
“This year we thought that heavy rain in February would drastically reduce our crop. But things have dried out since then, and we expect only a slight reduction overall with more jumbos instead of collosals this season.”
Rainfall totals were varied across the Vidalia growing region during the late February storms that brought an official end to a two-year drought. Some growers reported 10 inches of rain while others reported as much as 24 inches in a 10-day period.
In a few low spots, the ground was so saturated that the onion roots did a 180-degree turn and headed straight back up to the surface seeking oxygen, said Travis Collins, who operates Collins-based Mike & Travis Farms with his father Mike Collins.
More than 14 inches of rain fell on their Vidalia onions, he said.
“We had the best seed beds I’ve ever seen to start with, though,” said Mike Collins, who predicted good yields and average sizes.
Michael Hively, who with the Collins duo recently launched a new company called Sweet Vidalia Farms LLC, said the rain likely was less of a problem for the smaller growers.
“Those big growers with big heavy equipment had to wait longer to get back into their fields than the little guys with smaller, lighter tractors,” Hively said.
Solid prices expected early
Anxiety about the rain gave way to optimism about prices by late March.
Vidalia growers and marketers said low supplies of sweet onions from Texas and Mexico were good news for the trademarked sweet onions from Georgia.
Kevin Hendrix, chairman of the Vidalia Onion Committee and vice president of Hendrix Produce Inc., Metter, said he expects the season to open with prices in the $22-$26 range for 40-pound cartons.
He and his father, R.T. Hendrix, grow about 800 acres of Vidalias and expect to start shipping April 15, the date set by the Georgia Department of Agriculture as the official start.
Some growers said they planned begin shipping as early as April 8. Those early shipments are subject to special inspections.
“The whole first-to-market thing is mostly customer driven,” Hendrix said. “We have an inspector on site so we could go early, but we want to ship the best product, and sometimes that means you wait a week.”
L.G. Herndon Jr. Farms, based in Lyons, has a similar philosophy.
Jason Herndon, nephew of L.G. “Bo” Herndon Jr. and manager of the operation said being first to market isn’t the most important factor for his family’s operation.
“We don’t dig onions until they are mature,” Herndon said of the farm’s 500 acres of Vidalias. “We’re in this for the long haul, not the month of April.”
Although many Vidalia growers and marketers agree with the Vidalia Onion Committee chairman’s prediction that prices at the opening of the season should be at least $22 per 40-pound carton, few would venture a guess on how long the prices would hold.
Joey Johnson, co-owner of J&S Produce Inc., Mount Vernon, said his company serves as an agent for four Vidalia growers and has been involved in the deal for more than 20 years.
“In the past, before the offshore deals, we could hold the prices better through the season,” Johnson said, adding J&S expects to ship about 50,000 cartons of Vidalia onions this season.