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How Sweet It Is

OnionUGA Extension is helping farmers grow sweeter onions through soil management. Photo by Stephen Morton

University of Georgia Cooperative Extension is instrumental in helping Vidalia onion farmers produce a sweeter onion crop.

Through work at the UGA Vidalia Onion and Vegetable Research Center and in surrounding southeast Georgia counties — the hub of Vidalia onion production — onion research has yielded timely information, including data relating to flavor, to aid growers in their production every year.

“Growers want to know every year what varieties do the best in our trials. They use that information to help them in variety selection,” said Chris Tyson (BSA – Agriscience and Environmental Systems, ’06), UGA Extension Agriculture and Natural Resources agent in Tattnall County, Georgia.

According to Tyson, the agents aren’t breeding onions. They’re researching varieties from onion companies to see how they perform in southeast Georgia’s conditions. The crop’s taste has been improved by UGA Extension research on the impact of low-sulfur application treatments.

In previous years, agents have provided fertility recommendations aimed at producing not only optimal yields, but also the best flavor possible.

“We’ve always known that sandy soils are what create the sweet Vidalia onion. What we’ve been able to do in recent years is to really study the depth of the sulfur and micromanage the soil to put out an even sweeter onion,” said Cliff Riner (BSA – Agricultural Education, ’06), Vidalia Onion and Vegetable Research Center coordinator. “UGA research and Extension have always had a role in variety trials and variety evaluation, but we’re starting to see a major influx of new varieties within our industry from seed companies. It’s the job of county agents and myself to help figure out ways to manage those varieties — from how much fertilizer they like to planting dates — in order to try to maximize the potential of those varieties.”

Riner has served in Extension for 11 years. He has been the center’s coordinator for four of those years. Through research trials, Extension has made strides to improve direct seeding to save on labor and plant disease management. Riner thinks that Extension’s biggest accomplishment has been enhancing the onion’s flavor.

“We’ve learned a lot from the flavor aspect of onions and how to take a good onion and make it even better,” Riner said.

Vidalia onions are a major crop in Georgia. Onions were grown on 12,600 acres in the state in 2015, with a farm gate value near $149 million, according to the UGA Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development.

By Clint Thompson