(Aug. 26) VIDALIA, Ga. — Soft spots and an uncharacteristic taste — likely due to premature harvests — have resulted in the removal of two Vidalia onion varieties from an approved list.

There are plenty of other seed varieties on the list, 25 to be exact, but some grower-shippers believed the WI-609 and WI-3115 sweet onions to be early maturing, which would garner high prices if shipped before traditional harvests.

Now, with the admission among some grower-shippers that the onions were harvested too early, another controversy has taken shape around an industry recovering from a criminal investigation of the former director of its marketing group.

Next season, grower-shippers will not be permitted to market the WI-609 and WI-3115 as Vidalia sweet onions, said Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin. The onions, Irvin said, didn’t meet the standards required to be shipped under the label.

Gale Buchanan, dean and director of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at the University of Georgia, made the recommendation to remove the varieties. Irvin was responsible for final approval.

“We just think it’s not what we want to sell as a true Vidalia onion,” Irvin said. “We understand some people may continue to try to grow it and sell it as a sweet onion — as long as they don’t use the name Vidalia, they can do so.

Irvin said the onions, which have been in the industry for four or five years, had a bitter taste and lacked the flat shape of a traditional Vidalia.

LACK OF DATA

Michael Hively, general manager of Reidsville-based Bland Farms Inc., said his company disagrees with the commissioner’s decision. Bland Farms shipped the 609 onion last season.

Hively said scientific data were used to place the onions on the approved list, and he said such data should be used to remove them from the list.

This season, Hively said some 609 onions were not grown properly, and he said some varieties were incorrectly labeled as 609s. In addition, he said the onions were harvested prematurely.

“We can take any onion that’s on the approved list, and if you don’t grow it right, or you harvest it immature, or things of that nature, we’re going to have the problems with those varieties,” he said.

Hively said his company harvested its 609 variety seven to 10 days later than some of the earliest grower-shippers. He said companies that shipped a quality product harvested 609s about five days after Bland Farms.

Irvin, Buchanan and grower-shippers said the two varieties were harvested in late March. The industry norm for Vidalia onion harvests is mid-April.

If grown correctly, Hively said the onions were hearty, low in pungency and possessed disease-resistant qualities. Bland Farms grew 20 acres of the 609 last season and shipped small volumes, Hively said.

ONION WAS ‘MISTAKE’

Another company that also planted the 609, Cobbtown-based Plantation Sweets, doesn’t plan to plant the onion next season, said Bob Matousek, salesman at Plantation. Matousek said his company agrees with the commissioner’s decision.

Matousek said marketing the onion proved to be a mistake.

“I believe that was one of the biggest reasons that the market dropped so drastically at the start of the season,” he said.

On April 19, 40-pound cartons of jumbo onions from Vidalia were priced at $14-16, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The deal normally starts with cartons in the mid-$20s.

The district’s jumbo onions from controlled-atmosphere storage were priced at $14-16 on Aug. 25.

Plantation harvested its 609s about a week to 10 days before its deal should have started, Matousek said. The onion, he said, was of sufficient size at harvest, however, he said it had a hallow spot on its neck.

In order to fill that hallow spot, Matousek and other growers said the onions should have spent more time in the ground.

“If you let it go to full maturity — which is technically what the seed companies tell you to do — the onion is solid, the taste is OK and the pungency is low,” Matousek said.

PRICE ADVANTAGE

However, industry officials agree that some grower-shippers desire the potentially high prices of an early market.

“We are our own worst enemy,” Matousek said. “We present that onion to the marketplace as our first onion, and it’s very bad.”

But the consequences of early market penetration are not something of which Plantation Sweets is unfamiliar.

In 2002, the company shipped Vidalia onions one week earlier than some in the industry. Legal battles that followed spurred talks of an industry-wide start date.

In early April, Matousek said the idea of a start date was derailed, partly due to the creation of the approved-variety list.

“The issue in the past for a starting date concerned some outlawed varieties, let’s say, that matured sooner than the normal Vidalia varieties,” Matousek said April 5.

Most Vidalia onion grower-shippers in early April said they preferred third-party inspections to a start date. Officials from the USDA and Georgia Department of Agriculture have reviewed onion quality for the past three seasons.

Ralph Cavender, owner of Antioch Farms Inc., said he didn’t consider the 609 and 3115 to be early varieties. He said some of the onions were soft and immature, though he said pungency wasn’t a problem.

Antioch Farms didn’t plant either variety, but Cavender said he doesn’t support removing them from the list. He said it took three years for the onions to earn approval.

“Even though I had not grown them, I don’t like to see them set a precedent like that with taking varieties off when they’ve passed their approved trials,” he said.