(April 25) VIDALIA, Ga. — Despite heavy losses to this season’s crop, with as much as 21% to 35% of fresh acreage lost, Vidalia onion shippers have begun their season with markets far below last year’s.

Many onions have bolted to seed, a consequence of freezes in late February and early March. However, prices could rise as harvest continues and more of the crop moves into storage, shippers say.

Jason Turner, sales manager for Bland Farms Inc., Reidsville, Ga., expected a quick adjustment. Shippers could generate business from new customers overnight, he said.

“But they’re going to have to pay the higher price,” Turner said.

PRICES

Shippers were still waiting for that to happen in late April. On April 23, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported the following f.o.b.s. for 40-pound cartons of Vidalia onions: colossals $14-16, jumbos $12-14. Earlier in the week, jumbos had been at $14-16.

Around the same time last year, the USDA reported jumbos at $18.

The official estimate for this season’s crop puts acreage at 14,030, said Bob Stafford, manager of the Vidalia Onion Business Council, Vidalia. Of that, the council estimates 3,000 to 5,000 acres won’t be harvested this season.
Bob Matousek, vice president of onion operations, sales and marketing for Seald Sweet LLC, Vero Beach, Fla., said the company had lost 200 of its 700 acres.

“Some growers are better than others, but some are losing 80% of their crop,” he said. Sizing was leaning more toward mediums than jumbos, he said.

Tommy Irvin, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Agriculture, planned to ask Gov. Roy Barnes to assess whether Vidalia sweet onion growers would qualify for disaster relief.

Plus, a new inspection program this season is grading out 40% of the onions at packinghouses, Stafford said.

So with the supply-and-demand equation in mind, why were low supplies meeting low prices?

HEAVY EARLY SHIPMENTS

Turner said shipments to date were heavier than the same time last year.

Matousek said the industry had set promotional prices in anticipation of a larger crop. He also cited lower demand and lower quality.

“We’re acknowledging that we may have an appearance that is not perfect, be we feel we still have a sweet onion,” he said. “The quality of the onion is still sweeter than anybody else’s.”

That kind of reputation has fueled the growth of the Vidalia deal. Still, Ronnie Smith, owner of Georgia Sweets LLC, Vidalia, said this year’s crop reflects how the industry has compromised that reputation to hit traditionally high opening markets.

Smith, who early on predicted as much as 50% of this season’s crop would bolt to seed following the freezes, said many growers have been pushing seedbeds with heavy use of fertilizer.

Plus, judging from what he’s seen in area stores, Smith doubted the effectiveness of the state’s inspection program.

Vidalia onions should have a bright appearance and be well cured and firm, he said.

“All I see is this fairly well soft, uncured, dull-looking pretend Vidalia,” Smith said. “It’s a big sad onion without a top on it.”

Of course, with a wide growing region, quality can vary. Irvin noted that although some growers may lose 100% of their crops, others have reported excellent quality.

Harvest of the Vidalia sweet onion crop should continue through May, Stafford said.

“The weather will dictate a lot,” he said. “We can’t stand really hot weather on them.”

Already, warm weather had exacerbated problems caused by the freezes, Matousek said.

The early crop had experienced most of the loss, he said. Seald Sweet was hoping the rest of the crop would recover for the remainder of the fresh season and controlled-atmosphere storage.

Turner said growers could help strengthen the market in mid- to late May by emphasizing the fixed supply in storage and establishing where they want to be each week on pricing.