Growers see mixed demand for organic Vidalia sweet onions - The Packer

Growers see mixed demand for organic Vidalia sweet onions

04/05/2010 03:04:20 PM
Doug Ohlemeier

GLENNVILLE, Ga. — Organics remains a puzzle for many Vidalia shippers.

While many growers produce certified organic onions, most report mixed results in marketing them to retailers.

Few shippers get excited about the niche category’s demand.

Still, the deal’s largest shipper reports strong acceptance of the segment.

Some say the economy has affected sales.

R.E. Hendrix, president of Hendrix Produce Inc., Metter, said he was the first to grow organics.

He started in 2002 and said Antioch Farms, Claxton, followed his production.

“Some people want nothing but organics,” Hendrix said. “All your major chains have an organics section. They will put one or two pallets of organics on a regular load.”

The state of the economy, however, causes Hendrix to question how much consumers of organics are willing to spend on the segment.

Hendrix grows 30 dedicated organic acres, similar to past years.

R.T. Stanley, president of Stanley Farms, Vidalia, grows on about 50 acres of organics.

The grower-shipper has continually lessened its organic acreage.

“When we first started in organics, everyone was excited about them,” Stanley said.

“But the economy slowed it down and people haven’t shown much interest in them. If you over produce, you will have to sell them pretty cheap. With the way the costs of production are, you can’t afford to take a chance. And if you grow more onions than you can sell, you’re asking for trouble.”

Stanley said he has learned the hard way that if he plants a high amount of organic acres and has strong yields, he will more than likely have to sell them at a less expensive price.

Count Bland Farms LLC as a grower-shipper that hasn’t experienced disappointment with the category.

“This goes back to how you market your products,” said Michael Hively, general manager.

“We don’t grow them because it’s a necessity. We grow them because it’s responsible to have that type of crop for our customers.”

Hively said Bland has experienced success with the segment and said demand keeps growing every year.

“Organics are not that hard and aren’t something we dread,” he said. “We don’t look at them as being a necessary evil, but more of an expansion of our business and providing a one-stop source for our customers.”

Despite the slow economy, Hively said demand for organic Vidalias remains acceptable.

Bland and its growers grow organic Vidalias on about 10% of its acreage.

This is the third season that Bland has been shipping organics 12 months a year. Bland also grows organic sweet onions in Peru, Mexico and Utah.

This is the fourth season that Keystone Fruit Marketing Inc., Greencastle, Pa., plans to market organically grown Vidalia onions.

Marty Kamer, partner and sales manager, said he’s patient with the category.

“Demand is still growing, but the segment is still in its infancy,” he said.

“We are just scratching the surface here. There is a better future for organics. It’s not a big part of our business but it is something we feel is necessary to offer our customers.”

Organic demand hasn’t been impressive for onion seller Barry Rogers, president of Sweet Onion Trading Co., Melbourne, Fla., which sells for a number of Vidalia growers.

“Organic demand is not bad,” Rogers said. “The guys that want them will take a few on every load. But it’s not like we thought it would be.”

Rogers said Southern Hemisphere-grown organics haven’t taken off.

“There aren’t that many doing them and the ones doing it aren’t selling that many,” he said.

“A guy will take a load of conventional and put on 30 cases of organics. You can’t sustain a farming operation that way unless they go on ad or they get real cheap.”

Jaime Brannen, sales manager of Gerrald’s Vidalia Sweet Onions Inc., Statesboro, said increased production has lowered premiums.

“When only one or two people were growing them, there was a big premium,” he said.

“Now, it’s very small and it’s a loss as organics are a very expensive crop to grow. Just about everyone grows some organics.”

Organics aren’t big for Plantation Sweets, Cobbtown.

“With us, it doesn’t seem to be growing as fast as we thought or anticipated it would,” said Ronny Collins, president and chief executive officer.

“At one time, we thought it would take off and really grow, but it’s been a slow-growing item.”

Collins said Plantation Sweets has only a handful of customers that request organic Vidalia onions.



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