Strong market and timing make up for lower yield

Growers were pleased with last year’s crop. Vidalia prices averaged $32.90 per hundredweight in 2009. This year’s crop is anybody’s guess.
Photos courtesy of Vidalia Onion Committee, unless otherwise noted.

Georgia’s Vidalia onion harvest is unfolding like a television miniseries with hardship, drama and a silver lining.

“We were pretty scared for a time because we had 25 inches of rain in December (2009), then on the shirttail was unseasonably cold weather for most of the first of the year, so we were pretty concerned about the onion sizing up,” says onion expert Reid Torrance, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension coordinator in Tattnall County. “We fared better than we thought even a few weeks ago; our yields are turning out to be good.”

The winter weather created a harvest delay of at least two weeks and trimmed overall production by about a third. This year’s crop is not expected to yield as many jumbo sizes, but consider what is on the horizon: the continuing saga of the world’s onion shortage, pent-up demand for Georgia’s famous sweet onion and controlled atmosphere (CA) storage to extend the life of the average crop.

“This year has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” says Michael Hively, general manager for Bland Farms, Glennville, Ga. He also is chairman of the Vidalia Onion Business Council. “Most people have never seen a shortage like this in onions and a market that persists as long as this one has.”

Bland Farms grows, packs and ships sweet onions internationally and represents almost a third of the Vidalia onions on the market. Of the crop grown by Bland, about 20 percent was lost because of inclement winter weather. However, the onion quality and tight market could make up the difference.

“The onions that made it through the winter have good quality—the best quality we have seen in years,” Hively says, noting that the wet spring and lower nitrogen uptake would probably produce a sweeter onion. “The onions may be a little bit smaller, but each day it looks a little bit better. Now is when the crop is really being made.”

Shrek and Wendy Brannen, executive director of the Vidalia Onion Committee, announced a partnership between the association and DreamWorks to promote the sweet onion and “Shrek Forever After.” The movie premieres during National Vidalia Onion Month in May.

Peeling back the layers

Cliff Riner, Tattnall County’s extension agent, says Vidalia farmers were on track during the winter months, limiting efforts to push onions to mature and hopefully curb any seed stem problems. Known for their sweet and succulent qualities, the growing onion thrives most when “spoon-fed” during cold months.

“You want the onion to be in survival mode until the winter breaks. Then, once that happens, you want to have nutrients there for it to start growing,” he says, noting that growers have to be careful about pushing the onions.

Traditionally, area farmers sow onions in the fall and transplant in November or December. The rainfall made it difficult to fertilize, so some of the crop was not transplanted until January or into February.

“For now the question is will we have enough time to get a big enough top and bulb before it gets too hot and the plant shuts down physiologically. So, we’ve got to do whatever we can to make as big an onion as possible.”

Bob Stafford, director of the Vidalia Onion Business Council and recent inductee into the Vidalia Onion Hall of Fame, says time is on the side of onion farmers in Georgia and the 12,000 acres that are growing.

“After Texas finishes up, we’re the only show in town with the supply we have, so it’s a good time for us and the buyers,” he says. “I’ve been in this industry 15 years, and it’s the most unusual crop I’ve seen.”

If they can point to one bit of luck this year, onion growers and other professionals say disease has not been a factor.

Numbers don’t lie

Vidalia farmers are understandably tight-lipped about what elevated prices they hope their onions will bring. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, unit prices for Georgia’s sweet onions were between $25.20 and $35.90 over the past four years.

Vidalia onion growers and packers celebrated the industry’s partnership with Shrek by touring the DreamWorks campus in Hollywood, Calif. Donning ogre-like ears, Vidalia onion farmers celebrate the Shrek promotion that is expected to introduce new consumers to the sweet onion. From left to right: Aries Haygood, M&T Farms, Lyons, Ga; Delbert Bland, Bland Farms, Glennville, Ga.; Ronny Collins, Plantation Sweets, Cobbtown, Ga.; Bo Herndon, Herndon Farms, Lyons, Ga.; and Kevin Hendrix, Hendrix Produce, Metter, Ga.

This year, 11,800 acres of onions were planted, down slightly from the 12,000 acres planted the previous three seasons. However, the acreage trend remains downward. Growers planted 16,400 acres in 2004.

Georgia’s Vidalia onion crop averages $150 million in sales at the farmgate and during a solid, average year ships about 5 million 40-pound bags.

“Last year it was lower, but we got significant rainfall during both of our harvest stages,” says Wendy Brannen of the Vidalia Onion Committee in Vidalia, Ga. “Hopefully this year will be as good as last year.”

The Vidalia onion crop and name have state and federal protection. The state’s legislature defined a 20-county production area in 1986. In 1989, the growers received a federal marketing order that established the Vidalia Onion Committee as a way for producers to fund marketing and research for the onion.

The national onion scene has similar dynamics with supply and demand.

“The prices are moving up and down more than usual because of the shortage that has existed for probably more than two months,” says Wayne Meninger of the National Onion Association, headquartered in Greeley, Colo. “Early to midsummer, it’s expected that the supply and demand will be in a more normal equilibrium.”

Vidalia prices last year averaged $32.90 per hundredweight (cwt). That was not as good as the $35.90 in 2007—a year that also saw a pretty fair crop, volume-wise, at 3,240,000 cwt harvested. Vidalia growers made $82,909,000 on their crop last year—about the same as they realized in 2007, but significantly down from the $108,560,000 of 2008.

Tattnall County Extension Agent Cliff Riner inspects Georgia’s Vidalia onion crop with Robert Dasher of G&R Farms. The field visit was in late January after unusually cold temperatures camped out for 10 or 12 days.
Photo courtesy of Georgia Farm Bureau.

Yields in 2008 were a booming 3,450,000 cwt per acre, accounting for the increased revenue. Typically, growers look for yields in the 225 cwt to 275 cwt per acre range. Last year, for example, the Georgia growers harvested a more typical 240 cwt per acre.

The market for onions nationally is valued around $1 billion at the farmgate, and $5 billion among consumers.

Faith and fear

The current harvest season has been a bit of a nail-biter for Brannen, who is coordinating the Vidalia Onion Committee’s largest sales promotion ever. The organization has a partnership with DreamWorks Animation SKG, Inc. to promotion Vidalias with the much-loved ogre Shrek in conjunction with the release of “Shrek Forever After,” premiering in theaters on May 21.

“We’ve been a little anxious this season,” she says. “Not only did we have crops washed practically to Florida, but we had this frozen ground we needed to thaw so we could plant again.”

Significant rainfall and a prolonged cold spell delayed harvest by at least two weeks for Vidalia onion farmers in Georgia. The weather claimed about a third of the onions, but growers hope that timing, the onion shortage and higher prices will make up the difference.

However, Vidalia people are faithful, fanatical and extremely loyal to the state’s official vegetable.

“We do have beautiful consumer packs in conjunction with the Shrek promotion, and we’re hopeful those bags will continue to sell mediums, along with the jumbos,” she adds.

Shad Dasher operates both organic and traditional onion farms in Glennville, Ga. He says the weather means more hand weeding for the organic operation, Vidalia Organics, Inc. The organic harvest will be a little later than the midmonth expected yield for the commercial batch.

“Dealing with wet conditions, you have to take it as it comes. You can try to get out there and gather as much as you can before the rain comes, but then a rainstorm will show up and you are just caught.”

Dasher plans to use a common practice in undercutting the onions and trimming the root system to help dry the onions out.

Mid-April to mid-May were expected to deliver the goods, and the hope is that higher prices will make up the difference in the lower yield.

“A few weeks ago they (the growers) were poor-mouthing that it was terrible and I felt like then they were being too pessimistic. I think they would agree. We were afraid the onion wouldn’t size, but it can bulb over a short period of time,” says Torrance of the extension service. “When the time gets right, a bulb the size of a golf ball grows to the size of an onion in about two weeks. Once we got to April, temperatures warmed up so the onions started bulbing nicely.”

The retail newsletter, floor stand and Recipe/Contest pad that goes on the floor stand are part of the POS effort.

Lovable Ogre Shrek Represents Vidalia Onions

Industry reaches out to younger audience
Vidalia onion growers are banking on America’s favorite ogre, Shrek, to reach a new audience this spring.

The industry scored a partnership with DreamWorks Animation SKG, Inc. to promote the onion in conjunction with the release of “Shrek Forever After,” which premieres in theaters on May 21—during National Vidalia Onion Month.

“Shrek is an ogre and acts like an ogre, but if you pull back that tough exterior layer, like an onion, you find this sweetness just like a Vidalia onion,” says Wendy Brannen of the Vidalia Onion Committee in Vidalia, Ga. The onion reference was part of the megahit original Shrek movie released in 2001.

“If you are a banana or a strawberry or blueberry or something kids will readily eat, it’s easier to tie you to a Disney character or a Pixar movie. But if you are an onion, what do you do?”

There couldn’t be a better time for a blockbuster release than the current Vidalia harvest. Delayed two weeks because of heavy rainfall and an extended cold spell, the growers lost almost a third of the crop. However, the onion shortage, elevated prices and “Shrektacular” promotions create great promise for Georgia’s official vegetable.

The promotion offers incentives from retail managers to consumers and includes in-store contests as well as challenges on the organization’s Web site. Additionally:

• The campaign appears on 30 million milk cartons in 40 metropolitan markets in May and features the health benefits of Vidalia onions.

• Point-of-purchase radio spots featuring voices of Shrek characters will be heard in 700 grocery stores throughout the Western and Plains states.

• In-store promotions—which could feature human-sized Shrek cut-outs—include the online contest in which 50-inch televisions and Wii consoles are prizes. The committee has developed kid-friendly recipes, including a “swampy” joe sandwich, with the help of a chef.

“This is the first year we have promoted kid-related recipes,” Brannen says. “This is also a way to disguise a healthy vegetable.”

Brannen found herself working extensively with DreamWorks executives, and the quest to use the onion reference during the promotion of the current sequel went all the way to the swamp. The effort was required to have personal permission from Mike Myers, the voice of Shrek, to proceed.

Other “Shrek Forever After” partners are expected to give the Vidalia even more exposure. These include Visa, HP, McDonald’s, Bank of America and General Mills.

Curt Harler is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Growing. He resides in Strongsville, Ohio. Jennifer Paire is a freelance writer based in Canton, Ga.