Onion Quandary: When is a Vidalia Not a Vidalia?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THEY'RE sweet, aromatic, and bulbous. A few decades ago they began giving a small town in Georgia a worldwide reputation.

The town is Vidalia. The product is onions. Together they create a brand identification that most marketers dream about. (For more onions, see Walla Wallas, Page 14.)

The farmers who cultivate the onions in the counties surrounding Vidalia take pride in this versatile vegetable. They've spent bushels of money to promote their product. Now, some growers are concerned the famous name may be in jeopardy.

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Vidalia onions are grown in about a 20-county area in the central part of the Peach State. Farmers say mild winters, good water supply, and low sulfur soil there create onions that are the sweetest in the world. The Georgia legislature defined that area in 1986 with the Vidalia Onion Act. But some farmers in the more southwestern corner of the state want the area to be expanded.

Take C.L. Talley, for instance. The Tift County farmer says he has spent the past nine years growing onions that are just as sweet and mild as Vidalia onions. Because he lives at least 50 miles from the official Vidalia area, but he can't use the name to market his onions. Mr. Talley thus receives about 25 to 50 percent less money for each bushel he sells.

"There are a number of growers outside the belt who would like to market them as Vidalias," he says. Talley, who believes the quality of Vidalia onions has diminished as the quantity has increased, says that enabling others to use the Vidalia label would be an improvement because, "We would have to market them on quality instead of the name."

Talley and a handful of other growers are pushing for a piece of legislation that would open up the growing area to include other counties.

Some Vidalia farmers say the adoption of such a bill would damage the industry they've worked hard to cultivate. "If you're going to [expand], where do you stop?" asks Randall Morris, who plants about 100 acres of onions in the Vidalia area.

"My feeling is you shouldn't allow other areas to call them Vidalia onions just because they want to see a profit. They have to understand we don't believe they can do the quality we can."

Mr. Morris says Vidalia growers, who number about 200, have spent the past 10 years promoting the vegetable with much of the money coming out of their own pockets. In the past six years, they've doubled the acreage and number of onions produced.

But a few farmers outside the designated area are able to use the Vidalia name. They were included because they were growing before the 1986 law was passed.

"I can see points on both sides," says Willie Chance, an agricultural extension agent for Houston County. "Although I can certainly see the argument that other onions in other areas theoretically may be as good, that would be a question for someone to try some different ones and just compare. But the name is the question here, not the quality. The people who developed the Vidalia name have a trademark. They've worked hard to defend it and they have a right to enjoy it."

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