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.
Hendrix Produce Inc., Metter, has trimmed its organic acreage from 30 acres last season to 20 acres this year. Hendrix began with 8 acres in 2001.
“Some chains want it, but a lot won’t do it,” said R.E. Hendrix, president.
“The reason we started growing them is because a major Canadian chain wanted them. Most of the major chains buy a few. They may put one pallet of organics on a truck having 19 conventional pallets.”
Growing organic Vidalias has been disappointing for Anthony Cowart, co-owner of Cowart Farms, Lyons.
Cowart, who sells his onions through Keystone Fruit Marketing Inc., Greencastle, Pa., began dabbling in organics in 2008, but stopped production because he said growing organics isn’t economical.
“There’s small demand and in the last two years, demand has actually dwindled farther,” Cowart said.
“If there’s any need for it, we have relationships with other growers. It makes it more economically feasible for them to grow them instead of everyone trying to be in the deal and flood that part of the market with supply.”
Cowart said his operation might sell 15-20 pallets throughout the season, so organics remains a mixer item for most customers.
L.G. “Bo” Herndon Jr., president of L.G. Herndon Jr. Farms Inc., Lyons, said growing Vidalias organically remains challenging.
“It’s a very hard animal to do because you’re so limited on where you can put the onions and how you can farm them,” he said.