Cold Snap Hits Georgia Onion Belt

A February freeze could double prices for famous Vidalia onions

A spring breeze carries the pungent aroma of onions across Bland Farms in southeast Georgia. Surveying the rows and rows of Vidalia onions about to be harvested, grower Raymond Bland says, "This year's crop is short, but the quality is good."

Mr. Bland's son, Delbert, hurrying toward the packing shed that covers almost seven acres, adds, "Everyone who wants an onion will get one, but they'll have to get in line and pay a little more this year."

The freezing temperatures that hit the state in February damaged the $50 million crop of these famous sweet-tasting bulbs. The Vidalia - boasting an unusually high fructose sugar content of 12.5 percent - derives its flavor from the combination of the sandy, low-sulfur soil and the climate near Vidalia, a town in southeast Georgia.

While growers produced more than 3.5 million 50-pound bags of onions in 1995, this year they expect only 2.5 million bags. The shortage means consumer prices will almost double, says Reid Torrance, the farm extension agent in Tattnall County, the heart of Georgia's onion belt.

Some growers lost 70 percent of their crop; a few were wiped out.

The Blands were fortunate: They lost only 20 percent of their crop.

Since the family started growing the state's official vegetable in 1980, long hours and aggressive marketing have led to success. Raymond Bland started with a 50-acre tomato farm. Now, after advertising on billboards and starting a mail-order business, he and his son are the largest growers in the 20-county area designated for Vidalia onions by the Georgia Legislature in 1986. They till 2,200 of the nearly 16,000 acres on which Vidalias are officially grown.

The 1986 law, bolstered later by a federal marketing order, protects the 200 or so licensed growers from "bootleg" packers using the Vidalia name for onions from outside the region.

The licensed growers have more than doubled their acreage and production since 1990. (The onion-growing ability of the region's soil was discovered only in the 1930s.)

Now, in addition to expanding production, growers are gaining the ability to sell onions in the fall as well as the spring. The reason: controlled-atmosphere storage techniques, keeping onions in warehouses at 34 degrees and with only 3 percent oxygen in the surrounding air.

The technology gives growers some control over the supply and market price. Eventually new methods may allow year-round marketing.

Delbert Bland, a member of the growers' Vidalia Onion Commission, says controlled-atmosphere units "have changed the industry. They're the reason we jumped to almost 2,200 acres this year."

Along with new storage techniques, he credits Bland Farms' success partly to diversification, including the mail-order catalog and a new line of frozen onion bits and rings, and to workers. The Blands employ nearly 1,000 field workers, or "clippers," and an office staff of 40, including three generations of the family.

Despite the Blands' success, raising onions is still a risky business. It is capital-intensive. The controlled-atmosphere facilities can cost $2 million dollars, and a state-of-the-art grader can run $500,000.

The growing season and harvest is labor-intensive. The seeds are planted by machine every October, but the young onions are transplanted and harvested by hand. And, Delbert adds, "We irrigate and spoon-feed the onions with a special, low-sulfur fertilizer six times before we harvest."

Moreover, though state licensing helps protect the industry from bootleggers, Vidalias face competition. Rival sweet onions include California's Imperial Sweet, the Texas 1015, Washington State's Walla Walla, and Hawaii's Maui onion.

But county agent Mr. Torrance says, "I've tasted onions from all over the US, Central America, and South America, and nobody's come close to our Vidalias.... Other areas just can't grow anything as sweet."

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