VIDALIA, Ga. — A late March hailstorm shouldn’t cripple this season’s Vidalia onion harvest, grower-shippers report in early estimates.

The hail, which struck the afternoon of March 27, damaged up to 500 acres and slightly affected another 1,000 or so acres, said John Shuman, president of Shuman Produce Inc., Reidsville, Ga.

Because of increased plantings this season, Shuman said he didn’t expect the hail to cause supply gaps. He said he drove around southeast Georgia growing areas and surveyed damage.

According to the Vidalia Onion Business Council, Vidalia, Ga., growers this season planted 12,500 acres, up from the 12,096 last year. From 2006-10, growers planted an average 12,046 acres, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“The industry did receive some minor damage, but with the anticipated increase in yields, we feel like the industry will have very good production this year,” Shuman said March 29.

“When it’s all said and done, the industry should have a normal season. This shouldn’t produce any overall harmful effects.”

In mid-March, a group of growers and industry representatives scheduled April 18 as the season’s official shipping start date.

Shuman said the date is a symbolic date and he expects many growers to begin harvesting April 11. He said his growers plan to begin April 15.

Despite the hail, Shuman said he expects strong quality.

Many growers said they expect to begin shipping around April 20, later than the normal April 15 start.

“The early onions will be on time,” said L.G. “Bo” Herndon Jr., president of L.G. Herndon Jr Farms Inc., Lyons.

“But the real volume should be a little behind years past.”

Michael Hively, chief financial officer and chief operating officer of Bland Farms LLC, Glennville, said conditions point to a favorable year.

“The crop looks excellent,” he said in late March.

“Everything we’re seeing in the field looks good. We should expect a good quality crop this year. The onions should be very sellable and have strong shelf life.”

That is opposed to last season where late season rains cut harvesting and harmed the appearance of the onions, Hively said.

Packers normally market fresh onions through late June and begin selling onions from controlled atmosphere storage through August.

Buyers should prepare for strong promotions from the start of the season, said John Tumino, marketing director of Richter and Co. Inc., Charlotte, N.C., which markets for Stanley Farms, Vidalia.

“Last year was an unreal year for us because of the world shortage of onions,” he said.

“This year, it should be a little more democratic. We will have a very good Vidalia crop but it will settle at a reasonable market to where customers will be more apt to increase their volume.”

Tumino said buyers should expect strong promotions from late April into early June for the fresh deal and should see consistent quality and supplies throughout the storage season, which could run through early September.

The amount of that late season movement, however, depends on demand and how many onions growers place in storage, he said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture in late March hadn’t started reporting Texas onion prices, but reported 50-pound sacks of Mexican grano sweet yellow jumbos and mediums selling for $36 with 40-pound cartons of yellow grano sweets jumbos selling for $10.

That’s considerably lower than last season in late March when the USDA reported 50-pound sacks of Mexican grano sweet yellow jumbos and mediums selling for $36 with 40-pound sacks of yellow grano sweets jumbos selling for $34-36.

Last year in late April, the Vidalia deal opened at $32-34 for U.S. No. 1 40-pound cartons of jumbos with mediums fetching $30-32, according to the USDA.

R.E. Hendrix, president of Hendrix Produce Inc., Metter, said last year’s deal started high and remained strong in the $20s throughout the season.

Hendrix said volume last season declined 20%. He called last year an unusual season because low overall onion production brought higher than normal prices.

For this season, Hendrix said the extreme cold the growing region endured in December destroyed some plantings, but didn’t cause any widespread devastation.

“We should have ample supplies unless something happens,” he said. “We will be able to supply them.”

Hendrix expects to ship 500,000 40-pound cartons from its 800 acres.

Bob Stafford, manager of the Vidalia Onion Business Council, said the industry expects to pack nearly 5 million equivalent 40-pound cartons of onions this season. Last season, the industry shipped 4.7 million cartons. He said the deal usually packs 4.5 million to 5 million cartons.