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Vidalia Onions Growers Hopeful of Happy Harvest

They aren't even thinking about celebrating yet in Vidalia onion country. The last days of winter, and even the first of spring, have dealt some cruel blows to this sweet Georgia crop before.

But growers are starting to feel hopeful of a happy harvest in another month or so.

"The crop is looking very good this year," said George Boyhan, a vegetable crops horticulturist with the University of Georgia Extension Service.

"There hasn't been any significant weather damage," he said as the crop headed into the last two weeks of winter.

Boyhan said the only problems he's seen in the crop are minor.

"I've seen a few fields with a little botrytis (neck rot)," he said. "But it's mostly on the foliage. It can cause some problems at harvest if it moves down into the onion. But normal spraying programs should easily control it, if the weather cooperates."

And so far, the weather has done just that, although the early arrival of spring may have many growers nervous. A late hard freeze, like the one that cost them millions of dollars last year, could greatly damage the current crop of onions.

Growers have a lot at stake, Boyhan said.

"I don't think we know exactly how many acres of Vidalia onions are out there," he said. "But I think it's comparable to what was planted last year -- somewhere around 16,000 to 18,000 acres."

The Vidalia onion crop has grown greatly from about 700 acres in the mid-1970s. Most of the growth, Boyhan said, has been in the past decade or so.

Growers have been able to expand the acreage they plant, he said, mainly because of three major trends:

* Controlled-atmosphere (CA) storage allows onions to be stored up to eight months. The facilities are costly to build but have greatly expanded the Vidalia onion market.

CA storage has been good for the sweet onions' quality, too. "Growers have to have a higher-quality product going into storage," Boyhan said. "If you put an inferior onion into storage, you'll have serious problems coming out of it."

* Growers, especially those with the bigger farms, are increasingly selling their own onions. They're using a number of creative ways to direct-market their sweet crop.

* With the retail sales are coming a growing number of value- added products. Onion growers are processing onions into such things as relishes and flash-frozen onion rings and chopped onions.

Growers are also looking into processing carrots and other vegetable crops.

"They have these expensive facilities to process onions," Boyhan said. "They're looking for other ways to use them beyond that one time of the year."

They're selling such sweet spinoffs as Vidalia salad onions, too.

"Those are early-planted onions growers harvest and market when they're an inch-and-a-half to two inches in diameter," he said. "It's a tiny percentage of the crop."

The salad onions make up just one more facet of the fast- expanding world of Vidalia onions. "It's very much a business that has come into its own over the past few years," he said.

Boyhan had a ready reason for all that growth. "Well," he said, smiling, "it IS the sweetest onion out there."

(Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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