Rain overstayed its welcome a bit, but not long enough to overshadow the mild, warm weather that favored the coming 2020 Vidalia onion crop of southern Georgia.
“This has been more of an inconvenience than a hindrance to production,” said Cliff Riner, crop production manager at G&R Farms, Glennville, Ga.
“So far, our sizing is expected to be great, even better than last year.”
Every year the Georgia Department of Agriculture sets an official start date for the season after hearing from a 13-member advisory panel of the Vidalia Onion Committee of growers. This year’s start date is April 16.
In the same way that Champagne has to come from the certified Champagne region of France in order to call itself Champagne, so too are Vidalia onions protected by the Georgia Department of
Agriculture under Marketing Order No. 955, with certified growers in only 20 counties.
Not even sweet onions coming from that Vidalia region before the official start date can be called Vidalia onions.
“We have a longstanding history and integrity of this onion being protected by Department of Agriculture,” said Lauren Dees, sales and marking manager of Generation Farms, Vidalia, Ga.
The farm offers year-round sweet onions, conventional and organic, including the trademarked Vidalia during its season from mid- to late April through summer.
“People know it by name and look forward to it each season, and the shortened availability makes it even more desirable,” Dees said.
Unlike other onions, Vidalia’s have a flat-round shape. Sold at retailers under the PLU code of 4159, Vidalia onions are grown from a yellow granex seed variety, which is tested for a minimum of three years to ensure it remains one of the world’s mildest, sweetest onions with good shelf life, according to the committee.
Many growers say it’s been a good growing season so far.
“We’re excited by this season and it looks good,” Dees continued, “as long as the weather continues to do what it’s historically done. But these last few weeks are crucial.”
At 9,373 acres, the 2020 crop is similar to 2019 crop acreage, which was about 2,000 acres down from 2018, said Bob Stafford, committee manager.
But because farmers are so squeezed by ever-rising costs, they’ve been scrambling to plant high-density fields to maintain the same crop volume.
“We’re growing more onions on less acreage. Last year, we cut back 2,000 acres and we grew the same amount of onions,” Stafford said. “For a farmer to stay in business, you have to get better tonnage per acre.”
Growers and their farmworkers are cultivating 80,000 to 110,000 onion plants per acre by hand to maintain the 5 million to 7 million 40-pound equivalents every year that the customer base demands.
The juicier, softer texture of Vidalias necessitate hand cultivating, although a couple of growers are trying mechanical harvesting.
“The sweeter an onion is, the more brittle it is. You have to be careful about bruising. They’re not as hard as other onions,” Stafford said.
Stafford said he expects a strong, normal crop with “ample, promotable supply this season; last year, we had the best harvest season in many years. Hopefully we’ll do the same.”
In 2019, the Vidalia onion industry produced 5.3 million 40-pound equivalents of the 2-pound bags, 5-pound bags and loose 40-pound boxes, he said.
There’s a six to eight-week harvest period for fresh onions, and then about half the crop, or 3 million to 3.5 million bushels, is available from cold storage or controlled atmosphere storage through summer.
At the University of Georgia researchers are keeping about 40 varieties while doing continuously doing trials.
“We just added two new varieties this year, and we’re getting a longer shelf life while still maintaining that sweet flavor,” Stafford said.
Potandon Produce, Idaho Falls, Idaho, redoubled its efforts to offer sweet onions year-round, sourcing from Texas, California, Peru and other locations when it’s not Vidalia season.
The rains didn’t hurt Potandon’s Vidalia growers, said Dick Thomas, senior vice president of sales, and Joey Dutton, key accounts and onion sales manager.
“We were able to get in early, so we’ll probably have a good season as far as volume and quality, unless there’s a hailstorm or cold snap from now to then,” Dutton said March 13.
“Barring the unexpected, it should be a good harvest.”
Potandon offers all its onions in bags and boxes touting the Green Giant brand.
“It provides our retailers a point of difference from their competition. They’re carrying a nationally recognized brand consumers trust,” Thomas said.
Stafford said that growers sell every Vidalia onion they harvest. Troy Bland, chief operating officer of Bland Farms, Glennville, Ga., went even further.
“Later on, this spring and summer, it could be a situation where demand is greater than supply,” Bland said.
Although the Vidalia Onion Committee promotes its trademarked product all year, the peak window starts “when people start waking up in the Northeast. These folks are still asleep right now. When they start going out and grilling, that’s when our sales pick up,” Stafford said.
“The Sweet Life” slogan returns this year, and one of the committee’s biggest promotions ever, backed by a lot of money and time, is coming soon.
“We’re trying to reach the consumer now. We want chefs to put the Vidalia onion on their menu, and we want them to call it Vidalia, not sweet onion,” Stafford said.
Bland Farms is partnering with Paramount Pictures and “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run” for point-of-sale merchandising displays, themed package designs, national press and advertising campaigns, social media support and tear pads featuring SpongeBob and Krabby Patty-inspired recipes.
There will be a national retailer display contest with $10,000 in prizes and a consumer sweepstakes with prizes including a trip to Paramount Pictures for a family of four. There will also be a scavenger hunt as part of the Sponge Bob partnership.