Vidalia grower of the year

In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, farmers in Toombs County, Ga., were looking for a crop that would produce income. Two or three tried onions, and imagine their surprise when the onions matured and were actually sweet. This sweetness has been attributed to the low sulfur content in southeast Georgia’s sandy soil.

Terry Gerrald receiving the 2009 Grower of the Year award.
Photos by Chris Marsh.

A few years later, when the Georgia Agriculture Department put a farmers’ market in Vidalia, Ga. (in Toombs County), they put it almost dead center between Savannah, Macon and Augusta, which were three of the largest towns on the eastern side of Georgia. In addition, several major highways all met in Vidalia.

People were so impressed with the sweetness of the onions, they asked neighbors and relatives to buy extras. Another means of distribution came when the local Piggly Wiggly grocery store chain wholesaler decided to help the local farmers and give his stores something different that no other grocery would have.

Grower of the Year

Terry Gerrald of Statesboro, Ga., is the 2009 Vidalia onion Grower of the Year. Gerrald decided to start growing Vidalias several years ago. “Well, we needed to raise something that we had some hope of making a profit on and this looked like it might work out,” he says. He uses a standard fertilizer program on his 400 to 500 acres of sweet onions. He also grows about 1,200 acres of carrots in a sort of cooperative with other farmers. Watermelons are his other truck crop. Cattle and some of the usual south Georgia crops make up the rest of his workload.

Onions are fertilized in 2.5-acre grids in a precision fertilizing program. It is spread by trucks and includes several trace chemicals. “We try and go easy on the sulfur to lower the pungency that is naturally found in Granex onions. There is just enough to keep them healthy.”

There were flooding rains during the season and onions were lost.

Wendy Brannen of the Vidalia Onion Committee says that for a producer to become Grower of the Year, they must be a registered Vidalia grower, not be a current member of the committee, submit reports and payments in a timely manner, have no or few complaints directed at the farm, conform to the standards set forth in the marketing order, and continuously enhance and support brand recognition. “Ms. Brannen reports that a consumer study conducted by Opinion Dynamics Corp. found that nearly 75 percent of consumers say Vidalia onions are their favorite sweet onion. Shoppers overwhelmingly associate the phrase ‘sweet onion’ with Vidalia onions,” says Gerrald. Today, the sweet onions are sold in all 50 states, and according to the Web site www.VidaliaOnion.org, some growers are even exporting them to Canada and the United Kingdom.

Production

Growing Vidalia onions is practically a year-round job. Seedbeds are sown in mid-September and planting the seedlings is generally done from November to early January. Most growers are finished planting by mid-January so they can harvest in the early or midseason, which runs from late April through June.

Onions ready for shipping.

Even in this day of modern farming with all the different types of machines available to plant and harvest crops, these onions are still planted by hand and harvested by hand after the roots of the onion have been cut. When the roots are cut, the onions are “heat cured” by lying in the field for three or four days (assuming no rain).

About 70,000 seedlings are planted per acre. They are planted in 14-inch rows and spaced 4.5 to 6 inches apart in the row. Planting by hand means that people must crawl along each row. They drop a plant in a pre-dug hole and pack soil around it.

During harvesting, the workers go through the field and manually clip the roots and tops of each onion. This process is almost the same as it was in the early days of growing these onions, with the exception that the onions are undercut using a blade attached to a tractor. In addition, instead of using mules to get the onions to the packinghouse, trucks are now used. After drying in the packinghouse or packing shed, the onions are graded and prepared for shipping.

Grading onions for shipment.
One of the drying areas.
The grading machine.

The marketing order

Gerrald was very active in helping the Vidalia onion growers come under the protection of both a state and federal marketing order. This order protects the Vidalia name and established 20 Georgia counties as the area where the true Vidalia onion could be grown and sold. Before this was done, people would put any type of onion in a bag and call it a Vidalia, sweet or not. The marketing order is binding on all individuals and businesses that are classified as “handlers” in a geographic area covered by the order.

Food safety and season extension

More recently, Gerrald has been a leader in safety among growers. He was one of the first growers to have completely enclosed food-safe sheds and built the first state-of-the-art drying room in 2004. He was also the first to switch to 100 percent plastic bins for harvest and storage.

Many growers use a controlled atmosphere storage facility. This is a modification of the natural atmosphere, which is accomplished by altering the normal atmosphere to an atmosphere of 92 percent nitrogen, 5 percent carbon dioxide and 3 percent oxygen, with the air temperature in the room being maintained around 34 degrees Fahrenheit and 75 percent relative humidity. This storage area allows the onions to be stored for several months past the usual growing season. Gerrald stores his onions, according to Ron Deal, one of the shipping managers, at about 34 degrees Fahrenheit without altering the atmosphere. They find that the results are about the same. Usually, the season is over by September. Many growers have extended that to December or January by importing sweet onions from Chile and Argentina. These onions are classified as sweet, but cannot be sold as Vidalia onions because they have not been grown in the U.S. or the 20 counties covered by the marketing order. “Well, you know overhead keeps on going and this is a way to spread out some costs and gain additional income,” Gerrald says.

Interesting Facts for the Farmer

1.There are 20 yellow Granex seed varieties that can become Vidalia onions.

2.There are about 100 registered growers.

3.About 12,000 acres are planted each year in onions, with about 80,000 seedlings planted per acre.

4.Less than 2 percent of Vidalia onions are mechanically harvested.

5.At harvest, four workers can clip and bag just 1 acre per day; this would be about 600 bags total. This is all done by hand.

6.Around 5 million 40-pound boxes are shipped out each season.

Chris E. Marsh, M.Ed, is a safety trainer in Statesboro, Ga.