Published on 05/30/02

Growers Lose Most of Vidalia Onion Crop

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Photo: Dan Rahn

Roller coaster climate killed this year's onion crop revenues.
This year's Vidalia onion crop is enough to bring tears to the eyes of southeast Georgia growers. Only 40 percent of the area's biggest cash crop made it to market.

Reid Torrance, a University of Georgia Extension Service agent in Tatnall County, said not every farmer was devastated by the poor season. But enough were hurt badly enough to necessitate federal and state aid for his county and the entire onion growing region.

"Onions are a big commodity for Tatnall County, and in other counties around here, too," Torrance said. "We had some people who had 85 percent of their crop come in. Then we had folks who lost 100 percent of their crop."

It's the average that counts, Torrance said.

"Our county lost 60 percent of its onion crop this year," he said. "That means we're getting less than half of our usual revenue."

Problems for the onions started with a late wave of warm weather in November. They were exacerbated by a roller coaster of climatic changes during the growing season.

Onion plants are biennials that reproduce in their second season. So the late warm weather made them act as though they were in their second season, sending up seed stalks.

That's a death knell for onions. With seed stalks creating a tough core at the middle of the onion, the bulbs also don't mature past the point when they send up their stalks, leaving them more susceptible to disease and heat damage.

Add a heavy late frost on Feb. 28, and you have a recipe for onion disaster.

The February frost left the onions' leaves damaged. An unusually thick husk around the top of the plants then trapped moisture and bacteria inside, resulting in onions rotting from the inside out.

Most of the onions, however, were ruined by heat damage. High temperatures in late March and early April caused soft spots in the onion bulbs, almost as if they had been cooked.

This not only keeps the onions from being sold on the fresh market but makes them more susceptible to rot, which prevents them from being preserved.

Torrance said the last straw came with heavy, mid-April rains. The excess moisture got trapped in the husks of the plants, causing a flare-up of stemphyllum fungus, which the farmers had been fighting all season.

Some problems caused by the season's climatic fluctuations were evident before harvest, so farmers expected lower yields. No one knew how bad things were until a few days after they started clipping the onions.

"We still thought we had a salvageable crop when we started harvesting," Torrance said. "We were pulling onions out of the ground that we thought were OK. Twenty-four to 48 hours later, we were finding out they were ruined."

Shad Dasher, a third-generation onion farmer near Ludowici, Ga., lost 95 percent of his onion crop. Before the harvest began, he had most of the crop presold.

"Two to three days after clipping, the onions just weren't holding up," Dasher said. "On the third day of harvesting, we started dumping bags of onions in the fields to see how bad the damage was. My contractors came in and told me there was a problem. When they came to get me, that's when I knew it was bad."

Merritt Melancon is a public relations manager with UGA's Terry College of Business and previously served as a public relations coordinator for the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and UGA Extension.