Vidalia™ onions are a hot agriculture commodity during the spring and summer. During the rest of the year, sweet onions similar to the Vidalia variety are imported from South America. (Courtesy of Shuman Farms)
Many growers plant sweet onions in Peru during off-season to satisfy Vidalia fans
There’s just something special about Vidalia™ onions. Georgia’s official state vegetable boasts a sweet, mild flavor that is savored around the world. They’re also limited edition!
Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black and the Vidalia Onion Committee set the official 2022 pack date as April 12. The annual date announcement, which is governed by the Vidalia Onion Act of 1986, determines when the growing season soil and weather conditions will yield the highest-quality bulbs. No onion sold before the official pack date can be classified as a Vidalia.
According to the committee, the iconic crop generates more than $120 million in the state annually. The onions are sold in all 50 states and most of Canada. They represent 40 percent of the sweet onion market in the U.S. This season, approximately 10,000 acres of Vidalia onions were planted by 60 registered farmers across the southeastern growing region.
To satisfy the demand year-round for the Vidalia taste, sweet onions grown in South America – which has an opposite growing season from the U.S. – are brought in through the Port of Savannah to supply the U.S. during the winter months. These onions, which are planted using similar seeds, offer a comparable taste and appearance (including the characteristic flat shape and yellow color) to the Vidalia variety.
Peru offers the same soil texture and climate found in southeast Georgia, and allows a sweet onion crop during the off-season. Nearly 6,000 twenty-foot equivalent container units of onions were imported through Savannah in Calendar Year 2021.
As he toured the massive Garden City Terminal just ahead of the Vidalia pack date in April, Commissioner Black marveled at the volume of agriculture products moving through Georgia’s deepwater ports. During his visit, Commissioner Black offered some insight on the 2022 Vidalia onion season.
“It’s going to be awesome,” Black said. “There’s great unity in the industry and everyone is excited about a high-quality product.”
Aries Haygood, co-owner of A&M Farms in Lyons, Ga., said farmers throughout the Southeast had one thing in common this year – the late freeze that swept through the region. Haygood said although the damage wasn’t across the board, individual onions had varying degrees of internal maturity.
“We take every challenge thrown at us and see what we can learn from that,” Haygood said.
Haygood added that while peak season is limited, the Vidalia onion industry is year-round.
“It’s a never-ending cycle, but a good one!” Haygood said. “We start planting as the retailer season is wrapping up in September.”
Haygood said dryer weather produces the best-quality onions. He said Georgians are all too familiar with humidity and moisture that can move in unexpectedly. He added that although weather can sometimes affect an onion’s appearance, A&M Farms focuses on taste.
“We try to give customers a beautiful appearance, but we’re working on the best, sweet-tasting crop,” Haygood said. “Sometimes, the ugly duckling can still be a good onion.”
Cliff Riner, chairman of the Vidalia Onion Committee, agreed that some fields were hit worse than others during the March 12 freeze. But, Riner said the impacts were offset by exceptionally good weather during the harvest.
“The harvest weather was a real blessing and allowed us to stay on schedule,” Riner said.
The coveted bulbs are available from April to late summer. The Vidalia-specific growing area is defined by the 20-county contiguous region surrounding Toombs County in southeastern Georgia. John Shuman, president and CEO of Shuman Farms in Tattnall County, said customers can spot a Vidalia onion in the grocery store by its flat shape and light-tan skin.
The distinctive Vidalia onion was accidentally discovered when a Toombs County farmer named Mose Coleman found that low sulfur in the soil made his yellow onions mild instead of hot. Other farmers who were struggling to sell their crops during the Great Depression began replicating Coleman’s successful accident.
Shuman said the sandy soils of southeast Georgia, combined with the average rainfall, allowed sulfur compounds (the elements that make an onion hot or bring tears to your eyes when they’re cut) to wash away.
“This is what allows the onions to remain mild, sweet and uniquely delicious,” Shuman said. “The flavor of a Vidalia onion lends itself well to any dish. Customers use Vidalias in salads, while grilling, and when starting many of their favorite recipes.”
Riner said that although there are ebbs and flows in consumer demand, the industry is fortunate to have customers that love the product. He said this year’s crop should last through late summer, making the prized onion available for warm weather celebrations.
“Americans can have Vidalia onions grown in America for all their summer cookouts,” Riner said.
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