Published on 12/12/00

Sweet Crop Gets Ready for Winter

While most Georgians are hustling to finish last-minute shopping for the holidays, Vidalia onion farmers are planting the last of their fields and checking them twice.

"Right now, most everything looks good," said Reid Torrance, Tattnall County Extension Service director. "The majority of growers will be through planting before Christmas, which is a little ahead of schedule."

Except for some damaging, warmer-than-normal weather in November, the tiny onion plants are well on their way to a fruitful spring. They just have to get through winter first.

New Year, Less Onions

Because prices have been so low recently, Vidalia onion growers are planting less of the crop in hopes of improving market prices. So there won't be as many onions on the market next year, Torrance said.

Georgia growers usually plant about 15,000 acres of the crop. Tattnall County farmers grow about half of those. This year, Torrance said, he expects farmers to plant about 1,000 fewer acres than last year.

"The growers would like to see a reduction in acres," Torrance said. "These guys need a good year to put some money in their pockets. Farmers have barely broken even on prices over the past few years."

In an average season, fresh-market prices usually start high, then drop as the harvest continues. Over the past few seasons, however, Georgia farmers have produced an abundance of onions.

This oversupply has lowered the price farmers get, said George Boyhan, a horticulturist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. Barring any adverse weather, though, there should still be plenty of onions for shoppers next year.

Extreme Weather Tough

The onions don't mind some hard winter weather. But high winds and extreme temperature swings can damage the crop.

Onions take the hardest hit when temperatures drop into the low teens after a spell of warm, sunny days. The onion is 90 percent water. Low temperatures can cause the water in the tender onion cells to freeze and rupture.

The Vidalia onion crop hasn't minded the extended drought that has gripped the state, either. In fact, the onions like it dry.

"The drought doesn't much affect the onion," Boyhan said. "Dry conditions keep disease pressure down." Vidalia onions are planted under irrigation.

Sweet Treat Available Now

Shoppers don't have to wait until spring to enjoy fresh Vidalia onions, though. Small Vidalias, sold as salad onions, are in grocery stores now.

The junior-sized onions are planted in early August. They are then harvested until December, before they become mature. The onions are good in stir fries and salads.

"You can grow a lot of salad onions on a small number of acres," Torrance said. "It's a nice niche market for some growers."

Mature Vidalia onions are harvested in mid-spring, mostly in April. Controlled-atmosphere storage allows growers to extend the time they can market the crop. But even the stored onions don't last far past September, Boyhan said.

Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.