(March 10) More than a month away from harvests, Vidalia onion grower-shippers said their Georgia-grown products would be available in ample volumes and high quality this season — a bit of positive news amid con-cerns that two new viruses had crept into some fields.

Stanley Farms, Vidalia, Ga., planted an additional 100 acres this season, but that increase was offset when some early stands were lost, said R.T. Stanley, president of the company. The company’s acreage was subsequently limited to 1,100 acres, about the same as in 2003.

“That’s one reason we planted a little extra,” Stanley said. “We saw we were having some problems.”

Stanley said he couldn’t positively attribute early plant loss to the tomato spotted wilt or Iris yellow spot virus, but he said the new strains could have infected some plant beds.

“They looked pretty when we transplanted them, but some of them died,” he said. “Normally when we plant these transplants and they look good to us off the beds, they live — 90% of them at least. It could be that we had some virus in those beds and didn’t know it.”

However, it seems Stanley isn’t worried about his crop. He and other grower-shippers said weather has been close to ideal this year, and diseases and viruses are just a normal part of the business.

“That’s to be expected,” he said. “If they were all to be perfect, I wouldn’t know how to act.”

Stanley said his company would ship four to five truckloads of sweet onions per day once harvests start in mid-April, when most other shippers said they would start digging.

PRICES

It was premature to speculate on pricing in early March, but Stanley said demand for Texas’ 1015 onion, which comes on the scene in mid- to late March, would be a good indicator of the April Vidalia market.

Mexican yellow grano onions shipped through Texas in early March were $14-16 for 40-pound cartons, $12-14 for 50-pound sacks of jumbos and $10 for mediums.

Vidalia onion shippers said their products typically are priced in the mid-$20s when harvests begin, and then drop into the high to mid-teens throughout the season. Most shippers said they expected similar returns this season.

Early plantings were of good quality this season for Oconee River Produce Inc., Mount Vernon, Ga., said Rick Berry, president. He said virus pressure had not been a factor at Oconee, which planted about 600 acres.

Berry said the company had no problems with transplants, and while weather was cold in February, he said there were no significant problems associated with frosts or freezing. Temperatures didn’t dip much below 20 degrees after plantings, and in early March highs were in the 70s.

Oconee’s fresh market onions were expected to be harvested about the third week of April or by May 1, Berry said. Storage onions, he said, would be dug in mid-May.

Last year, many shippers said an overabundance of rain decreased yields. Total industry acreage was about 13,500.

The Vidalia Onion Business Council, Vidalia, has predicted that about 16,000 acres of sweet onions were planted industrywide, said Bob Stafford, manager of the council. Stafford said three of the industry’s largest growers increased their acreage by 1,500.

However, some shippers said industry acreage could be closer to last season’s figure, as viruses overwhelmed some early stands.

Every season, Stafford said stand loss is typically 10% to 15% on average throughout the industry. Last year, weather took a 40% bite out of much of the crop, he said.

PLENTIFUL

Stafford said that despite virus fears, the Vidalia onion industry would ship plenty of onions this year.

“Every year you have certain things because this onion is so brittle and fresh,” he said. “There are a lot of un-knowns. We have fields out there that are bad. We have some that are real good.”

Stanley of Stanley Farms said the industry would likely come away with 14,000 acres. He said some neighbor-ing farms have fields that won’t be harvested because yields are too thin.

Scientists have predicted that onion thrips, which might have come from Peru, introduced yellow spot to the area. However, an exact origin for that virus and spotted wilt is not clear.

About four Vidalia shippers have Peru deals, but some don’t bring the onions into Georgia. Stanley said he shipped Peruvian onions in the past, but not this season.

Stanley said the onion viruses could cause misconceptions.

Though the viruses weaken stands, limit growth and make plants susceptible to other diseases, they cannot be spread to humans.

“When you start talking about a new virus you’ll scare the customers,” he said. “You better know what you’re talking about. They might think it’s bad for them to eat it.”

Plants must be kept healthy in order to combat the disease, shippers said. Oconee River helps its plants defend themselves through its pesticide use, Berry said.

“All we can do as growers is continue to spray aggressively and monitor, scout the fields,” he said.