Organics account for small share of Vidalia onion sales

04/05/2011 12:00:59 PM
Doug Ohlemeier

GLENNVILLE, Ga. — Though not a large segment, Vidalia onion shippers and marketers say the organic onions they ship enjoy consistent demand.

Bland Farms LLC grows 192 acres organically. That accounts for a little more than a tenth of its own 1,700 acres, said Michael Hively, chief financial officer and chief operating officer.

Hively characterizes demand as flat but consistent.

“I see it still growing, but maybe it’s catching its breath,” he said.

“Coming out of this recession, in this economy, most people don’t want to pay the extra cost for organic. Sales have been flat over the last couple of years.”

Most retailers carry only a small line of organics and keep their shelf space limited, Hively said.

As onions didn’t make the notorious “Dirty Dozen” list, perhaps consumers aren’t more prone to purchase organic versions of onions, said Sarah Seebran, marketing manager.

Because growers can’t apply limited amounts of nitrogen, sulfur and other inputs to their organic crops as they do with their regular crops, the organic onions often mature with many more inconsistencies that growers don’t see in their conventional crops, Hively said.

Barry Rogers, president of Sweet Onion Trading Co., Melbourne, Fla., said he grows organics only in select growing regions, such as Vidalia, Peru and California.

“Organics took off like gangbusters when the whole organic deal exploded, but it calmed down when the economy calmed,” he said.

“Everyone started cutting their orders when the economy grew worse. We got to where we couldn’t sustain what we were doing and make money.”

Sweet Onion Trading does offer organic sweet onions but doesn’t conduct marketing campaigns for them, Rogers said. If demand increases in the future and makes production viable, he said he would consider getting larger in the deal.

The growers who grow for Shuman Produce Inc., Reidsville, expect to harvest from 50 acres this season.

Mark Shuman, general manager, said acreage remains consistent with previous seasons.

“The organic Vidalias look very good this year,” he said.

“It’s a small segment, but it will continue to have its place. It’s here to stay and is an add-on sale. We like to sell things. We have learned how to grow and how to grow them more efficiently. We have been able to do that in a manner that has helped extend the shelf life of those onions.”

Shuman acknowledged that growing organic onions requires a learning process. As growers cannot grow organics without their conventional armaments, he said it’s like learning how to walk again.


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