By Faith Peppers
University of Georgia
The big picture for Vidalia onions this year "is bumper yields, great quality and a lot of onions to move," said Reid Torrance, the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension coordinator in Tattnall County, in the heart of the Vidalia growing region.
"There are plenty to go around," he said, "so buy some for your mother for Mother's Day."
Torrance said the Vidalia onion crop may be the biggest ever. "It may be a new record,” he said. “If it's not a record per-acre yield, it will be very close."
Based on historical averages minus disaster years, a typical per-acre yield is around 200 hundredweight, or 20,000 pounds. "Around 240 to 260 hundredweight is our high," Torrance said, "and we'll be in that range."
Good weather and good science account for the bumper crop.
"Our yields have been up 20 to 25 percent or more in the past few years due to new varieties," Torrance said. "We're about four weeks into the harvest, and the final number for this year will all depend on the weather. The overcast weather we've had is a good thing for us. If it starts getting really hot, these onions in the field aren't going to last."
About half of the crop is already harvested, much of which will go into storage. "Movement (from the field to the store) has been slower for a lot of people this year than a typical year," he said.
"We've sold about 20 percent of what we've made so far," he said. "We're just trying to get them out of the field as fast as we can."
Vidalia onions burst onto the fresh-produce scene in the early 1930s. The growing region was on a main thoroughfare for tourists going to Florida, and word about these exceptionally sweet onions quickly spread, creating demand in northern markets.
Competition for the sweet onion market continues to grow.
"Demand has been good, but we're a little bit perplexed as to why movement has been so slow," Torrance said. "We've been getting the bigger yields, and our market window is getting earlier and overlapping with the Texas sweet onions. And there has been some talk about high fuel prices impacting movement."
International competitors have also entered the market. "The stuff out of Chile and Peru really is in a different season," Torrance explained. "It impacts our sales out of storage when they start coming in in September. So we really don't want to sell onions past September, because you're competing for the limited shelf space allotted for sweet onions."
For the sweet onion market, timing is everything.
"Certainly, I think our market window is getting a little too early," he said. "What I'd really like to see are some later- maturing varieties that have real good quality."
(Faith Peppers is a news editor for the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)