VIDALIA, Ga. — While an overwhelming majority of Vidalia onions are sold on the fresh market, grower-shippers in recent years have also found success selling processed Vidalia onion products.

Processed line provides added value to fresh shippers

Courtesy Gills Onions LLC

Gills Onions LLC launched a retail fresh-cut line last fall and offers more than 100 stock-keeping units for foodservice, says Nelia Alamo, director of sales and marketing.

If a grower-shipper doesn’t have facilities to process the sweet onions into sauces and dressings, it can sell its culls or off-grade onions to other grower-shippers that have processing operations.

Interest in and sales of the segment have increased during the past two years, said Wendy Brannen, executive director of the Vidalia Onion Committee.

She said growers that process Vidalia onions have boosted their marketing during the past couple of years.

“They are going to more and more regional food shows,” she said. “They have really amped up the volume of marketing that they do for their processed products.”

Brannen said the onion committee during the past year has received more telephone calls and e-mails from companies interested in creating Vidalia products ranging from hamburgers and bread to barbecue sauces.

Growing demand

“We are definitely seeing more and more demand for Vidalia products,” Brannen said.

“We are seeing more products available. We have families in this area that have for years done processed products. They do a wonderful job of developing new products and getting those products out into the market, either with their label or helping other companies create their own products.”

Through its Vidalia Valley brand, Stanley Farms has been in the processing deal since 1999.

Stanley Farms previously purchased products from Manning Farms, Uvalda, a company Stanley purchased, relocating the production line to a facility south of Lyons.

Through the individual quick freeze process, Stanley is able to freeze some of its onions and sell the frozen product throughout the year.

Vidalia Valley sends containers of raw onions and frozen onions to customers, said R.T. Stanley, Stanley Farms’ president.

“We started off pretty small,” he said.

“Now, since getting the company to do IQF, I don’t know how fast it will grow, but I don’t see anything except demand continuing to grow. Any added value that we can work with on our onions will really help the industry as a whole.”

Stanley said his operation sends up to 2 million pounds of onions a year to the processing division.

Marketing challenges

Bland Farms LLC, Glennville, entered the mail order business in 1985 and began selling a retail line of condiments in 1998.

Sandra Bland, sales and marketing director of Vidalia Brands Inc., which markets Bland’s dressings, relishes and other onion products, said sales often dip in the fall and winter when fresh Vidalia onions aren’t in supply.

“There are sweet onions all year long but it is still a challenge to get them to display Vidalia products during the off-season,” she said.

“Consumers look for them all year long, but it’s a matter of floor space and shelf space.”

R.E. Hendrix, president of Hendrix Produce Inc., Metter, agrees that securing shelf space can be challenging.

Hendrix sells a small volume of its relishes to the same supermarket chains that purchases its fresh onions.

Those stores promote the value-added product primarily during the Vidalia season, Hendrix said.

“It’s not a moneymaker. It’s just something you have to have for your retail customers,” he said.

“The chain stores’ footage and shelf space has to turn so much. It’s a bloody game out there. They can’t have something setting on the shelves and not move. It moves during the Vidalia season but not at other times. No one wants to pick up a high-dollar relish.”

Hendrix used to also sell more of his processed products via mail order.

The mail order sales, however, can cause headaches, Hendrix said.

M&T Farms, Lyons, purchases products for sale under M&T’s label.

“The processed onions are important to the industry because there is so much costs in growing the onions that it helps to have a different outlet to go to other than shredding them in the field,” said Aries Haygood, operations manager.

Bland said Vidalia Brands in May plans to introduce a line of all-natural and low-calorie products that don’t use preservatives.