(May 10) VIDALIA, Ga. — Expected losses from this season’s Vidalia sweet onion crop have risen and could exceed 50%, shippers say.

Quality problems vary among growers but are bad enough in some cases for loads to be rejected at the receiving end, said Reid Torrance, Tattnall County extension agent.

Meanwhile, despite the losses, f.o.b.s remained in the $12 range May 6 for a 40-pound box of jumbos, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The same time last year, with heavier volumes available, the f.o.b.s ranged $12-14.

Jason Turner, sales manager for Bland Farms Inc., Reidsville, Ga., said prices could rise as the industry begins sourcing from cold and controlled-atmosphere storage, known for having the best quality.

More limited volumes in CA storage this season also should bolster prices, Turner said. Plus, many shippers are having to source outside their farms to fill orders.

Bland Farms wants to push its f.o.b.s as high as $18 by the end of the month, he said.

“With the crop being so short, it’s going to turn into a storage season earlier than I’ve ever experienced,” he said.

Usually, the company finishes its field production in late May. This year, it should be done by May 12, he said.

SLASHED ESTIMATES

Early estimates put the overall Vidalia crop at 5 million 50-pound equivalent units, said Bob Stafford, manager of the Vidalia Onion Business Council. By early May, expectations had fallen to between 2 million to 2.5 million, he said.

Torrance said the industry had estimated the value of the crop at $80 million. With at least half of it gone, the industry could lose $40 million.

Tattnall County, with the majority of this season’s 14,050 acres, will be hit the worst, he said.

Early estimates for insurance purposes estimated the industry’s total acreage loss at 5,000, though many acres haven’t yet been surveyed, Turner said. Bland Farms, which planted about 1,800 acres, estimates its losses at 200 acres.

Still, Turner has heard of other growers that have lost 90% of their crop.

On the eve of the Vidalia Onion Festival, scheduled for the weekend of May 11, many growers were asking for disaster relief.

SHOT IN THE FOOT

But not everyone supported the idea. Most of this season’s problems stem from the industry’s desire to hit high early markets, said Ronnie Smith, owner of Georgia Sweets LLC, Vidalia.

“How do you file for disaster when you shot your own self in the foot?” he said.

Of Georgia Sweets’ 300 acres, Smith anticipates crop losses of just 2%. Sixty percent of his onions are colossals, he said.

“We don’t plant early onions,” he said, “and we don’t push them.”

Torrance attributes trouble with this season’s crop to several factors.

First, warm fall weather caused onions transplanted in November to grow too quickly. That led to double bulb and seed stem, he said.

A cold snap in late February also led to an accumulation of shuck on plants, which leads to sour skin. Then severe heat and the disease stemphyllium came in April.

Asked for a comparable season, Torrance cited 1991. That year, bacterial problems wiped out about half the Vidalia sweet onion crop.

But the big difference is that in 1991, the industry didn’t have half the acreage it does now, Torrance said, and what it did have was spread over twice as many growers.

“We’ve never experienced this kind of disaster,” he said.