Weather woes hit Vidalia onion crop

More than half of Georgia's Vidalia Onion crop is expected to be lost this year due to crop damage caused by erratic weather conditions during the growing season.

Crop damage has been caused by several factors, says Reid Torrance, Tattnall County Extension director.

“Unseasonably warm weather in November and December caused early planted onions to grow more than they usually would before going dormant for the winter.

“When their spring growth resumed, the biennial onion plants mistakenly thought they were starting their second year of growth and began multiplying. A February freeze damaged onion foliage, making it susceptible to a fungus. Fluctuating spring temperatures further stressed the plants, weakening the onion bulbs,” says Torrance.

The loss to the Vidalia Onion industry could be $50 million, he adds, which could result in an impact of a quarter of a billion dollars on the area where the onions are grown.

Georgia Department of Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin has called for the review process to begin to determine the damage done to the crop. Irvin has asked Gov. Roy Barnes to start the process for needs assessment reports from the growing area. Barnes then will make the official request to the Secretary of Agriculture, who directs the state's Farm Service Agency office to do the assessments.

“Growers never have experienced a problem like this. In 1991, we came close to losing half of the crop, but we didn't have as many acres of onions and had twice the number of growers,” says Torrance.

Although some growers have lost up to 100 percent of their crop, there are good onions as well, he says. Unfortunately, the good onions aren't bringing a premium price because most growers want to move their crops as soon as possible.

“Buyers are aware we have problems, and they aren't anxious to pay more,” explains Torrance.

Some of the onions are damaged so badly that growers are plowing them under. Some growers are selling slightly damaged onions to terminal markets where they are sold wholesale.

“When you send onions to a terminal market, it's like consigning,” says Shirley Jarriel, who grows onions with her husband. “We might get from $7 to $10 for a 40-pound box.”

Torrance says the average selling price for this crop is $12 for a 40-pound box. In a good year, they might bring $16 for a 40-pound box.

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