Bitter battle brewing over sweet Georgia onions

The Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionNovember 8, 2013 

  • What makes a Vidalia?

    To be a Vidalia, an onion must come from one of 20 approved seed varieties. Vidalias can be grown in only 13 Georgia counties or in specific areas of seven other counties.

    By the numbers

    • An estimated 80,000 seedlings are planted per acre.

    • About 5 million 40-pound boxes are shipped out each season.

    • In 2011, the Vidalia onion had an $159 million economic on the state of Georgia, more than any other vegetable commodity. Second was watermelons, with $98.6 million. Chickens remain the top farm commodity with a $4.6 billion impact.

    SOURCES: University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, Vidalia Onion Committee

— A battle has commenced over the future of the iconic Vidalia onion.

First came the whispers that reverberated from southeast Georgia farms to kitchens across the nation and to halls of power in Atlanta: Vidalia onions aren’t as sweet as they used to be. And they look odd. And go bad quickly.

Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black heard the talk and decided to act. Now lines have been drawn in the low-sulfur sand that makes a Vidalia a Vidalia. Growers have lined up against growers. And growers have lined up against Black.

For several years, Black said in an interview, onions harvested too early have resulted in inferior Vidalias with shorter shelf lives.

That has damaged the brand and caused the market to collapse, Black said. In response, the commissioner has imposed new regulations that set an April date before which no onion may be packed, giving the crop 10 to 15 additional days in ground.

While there is broad agreement in the industry that the Vidalia’s quality has been off, not everyone is convinced Black has found the right solution.

Some farmers argue weather conditions and other factors determine when an onion crop is ready to harvest, and that growers are in the best position to make that decision. One prominent Vidalia farmer has hired former Georgia Attorney General Mike Bowers to fight the move in court.

It’s no minor issue. Vidalias are Georgia’s most valuable vegetable crop, with an estimated $150 million annual impact on the state economy. Just this year, state records show, Vidalias hit the market in April selling for $20 to $22 per 40-pound box. But, by June, the height of the season, the price fell to $14 to $18 a box.

The Vidalia is a keystone of Georgia’s agricultural background. The famed bulbous vegetable is protected by federal trademark and state law that created a 20-county region outside of which an onion is merely an onion. Inside those southeast Georgia counties, onions can grow up to be Vidalias.

For the past few seasons, Black said, there has been a lot of “noise in the marketplace. The onions are not what they used to be. The quality is not holding up.”

Before the rule change, which will take effect next year, a date was selected each year in early spring when farmers could ship onions to distributors and markets. Before that date, a farmer could have his onions inspected. If they met a top federal grade, the onions were good to go.

But that grade, Black said, didn’t take into account what makes a Vidalia a Vidalia: the wide, flat iconic shape and the sweet-enough-to-eat-raw taste.

“The rule will solidify consumer confidence through providing the high-quality onion for which the Vidalia is known,” Black said in an interview from a rocking chair in his Atlanta office. “The rule ensures the sweet taste, increases the shelf life, and allows for the proper, flat, shape.”

Delbert Bland doesn’t need anyone to tell him there’s a problem with Vidalias. He’s grown them in Tattnall County, Ga., for 30 years.

“I am 100 percent in favor of doing anything possible to improve the appearance, as well as the quality of the Vidalia onions,” Bland said. “That’s my livelihood. It’s all I’ve ever done.”

Black’s solution, however, “is totally unacceptable. You can’t dictate or set an arbitrary date a year away when Vidalia onions will be mature and ready to ship.” Bland said he’s seen mature Vidalias in early April and some that weren’t ready until late April.

In the past few years, a new variety of Vidalia seed was developed that was intended to allow for an earlier harvest. But several farmers told Black those varieties are inferior. The advantage of the early seed is it has the potential to add several weeks to a market that lasts just four full months.

Under the new rule, no onion may be packed or sold before 12:01 a.m. on the Monday of the last full week of April. In 2014, that’s April 21.

Bland first grew Vidalias in 1982 on five acres and today is the country’s largest grower, packer and shipper of sweet onions. Bland Farms ships almost 2 million boxes of Vidalias a year from 1,000 acres and represents nearly half the annual Vidalia crop.

He feels so strongly that the state has made the wrong move that he hired Bowers to sue the state in Fulton County Superior Court. The suit argues Black abused his power in creating the new rule.

State law gives the agriculture commissioner responsibility for protecting the Vidalia brand. Before making the change, Black held town halls across the Vidalia region, proposed a draft regulation, took public comment and held a public hearing.

“I’ve talked to grower after grower,” Black said. “We think we made a good decision.”

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