Published on 05/11/06

Organic Vidalias add new sweet onion option

By Faith Peppers
University of Georgia

A new player appeared in the sweet onion market about three years ago: organic Vidalia onions.

"We're seeing an increase in that trend," said Reid Torrance, the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension coordinator in Tattnall County, in the heart of the Vidalia growing region.

"Consumers are willing to pay a pretty good price for them," Torrance said. "But, primarily due to weed control costs, you have to put more money into growing them."

George Boyhan, a UGA Extension vegetable horticulturist, estimates that Georgia has about 50 acres of Vidalias under organic cultivation this year. That's less than 1 percent of the total acres of onions grown in the state. But both Boyhan and Torrance expect to see that number grow.

"I expect there to be some growth, perhaps to 100 acres next year," Boyhan said. "I don't think it will become a huge part of the market, but there still is unmet demand."

Torrance said last week's organic Vidalia onion price was two to three times the price for commercially grown onions. "Believe me," he said, "if there's a dollar to be made, people are going to pursue it."

Boyhan believes organic Vidalia onions have the potential to grow into a significant part of the Vidalia onion industry.

"They may ultimately rival salad onions in terms of gross receipts to growers," he said. "Overall, the organic industry is very small in Georgia, with about 1,000 acres total. This is in comparison with 190,000-plus acres in vegetables alone."

Weather and pests can create problems for organic growers, too.

"Georgia does not have the cold winters they have up North nor the dry weather they have out West. So organic production is very difficult," Boyhan said. "Diseases, insects and weed control can be problematic -- particularly weed control."

There is little discernable difference in the organic and traditionally grown Vidalias. "Organic onions can be smaller, depending on how well the grower did in fertility, water, weed control, etc.," Boyhan said. "Smaller onions generally are more pungent than large onions."

To be labeled Vidalia onions, the crop must have been grown in the certified area of the state that includes 12 whole counties and parts of eight others in southeast Georgia.

"The Vidalia name for the purposes of marketing onions is controlled by the Georgia Department of Agriculture," Boyhan said. "Organic Vidalia onions would also have to be certified as organic, which is a whole other process."

(Faith Peppers is a news editor for the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.