Published on 02/14/96

Winter Storm Puts Onion Crop in Jeopardy

When ice and freezing rain blanketed the South in early February, sweet Vidalia onions didn't take so kindly to it.

In Tattnall County, in the heart of Georgia's onion-growing country, the ice storm produced mixed results.

"We have some significant loss," said Reid Torrance, Tattnall County director for the University of Georgia Extension Service.

"It's hard to put an exact percentage on it at this point," Torrance said. "But some fields are going to suffer heavy losses. Others will suffer no loss."

The range of damage depends on the plants' stage of growth when the freeze hit, the plant variety and the soil type.

"We're finding that onions in wetter places in fields, and in soils with higher clay content, seem to be surviving better than in very sandy soils," Torrance said. "We're also learning a lot about onion varieties and their levels of cold tolerance."

Torrance found that, as a rule, the Asgrow Y33, Asgrow 6020 varieties and a Rio Colorado variety called Sweet Vidalia seem to be more cold- tolerant than some of the other varieties.

The plant's maturity also played a major part in the extent of the damage.

"Most of our onions were set, or planted, in November," Torrance said. "Some of the later-planted onions seem to be taking it better than some we set earlier."

The more mature the plant, the larger and lusher the aboveground growth.

"Now we have a lot of dead tissue on those with lush tops," he said. "We're hoping for dry weather so that will dry up and we'll get some new growth that will stay with us."

Dead tops don't necessarily mean dead plants.

"If the freeze damage to the bulb was not too severe, then that plant will survive," Torrance said. "We just have a lot of plants right now that we don't know which side of the fence they will fall on.

"Physiologically, the onion's energy reserves are in the bulb, and it will shoot out new growth," he said. "The question is: Will it continue to grow, or once it uses all that energy in the bulb, will it die?

"That's what takes us so long to assess the damage," he said. "A large portion of the crop could go either way."

Georgia's onion crop is worth more than $50 million to the state's economy. About half of that is grown in Tattnall County.

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