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Hurricanes now hitting Vidalia onion farmers

By Dan Rahn
University of Georgia

Last year's devastating hurricanes are hitting Vidalia onions now. The effect is troublesome at the moment, but the potential for Georgia growers is scary.

"We're still planting a few onions," said Reid Torrance, the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension coordinator in Tattnall County and an area onion agent. "The primary reason is that so much of our labor force has gone to Florida and Louisiana cleaning up behind hurricanes."

Vidalia onion planting is behind schedule in Tattnall County. And farmers there grow more of the sweet, specialty onions than in any other county in the official growing region.

Labor crews that normally have 40 workers are showing up with 15 or so. "And when heavy rains come through and everything comes to a standstill for a while, we tend to lose more of our labor force," he said.

The real problem

The labor shortage isn't a big problem -- for now. "We don't mind having to plant a few onions in January," Torrance said. "Some growers are helping their neighbors finish up. We're doing OK."

The real concern, he said, "is if we have a labor shortage later this spring." That would be a vastly more serious problem. The Vidalia onion harvest starts in just three months.

"We will not be through cleaning up after hurricanes in three months," Torrance said. "And with Vidalia onions, when it's time to go, we have to go. We have to get those onions out of the fields and out of the weather."

Harvested and stored properly, Vidalia onions have a fairly long shelf life for consumers. But for farmers, the window for harvesting and processing the sweet onion crop is small.

"We have tended not to maximize the potential of mechanical harvesting," Torrance said.

Machines?

Some onion growers have mechanical harvesters. But for a number of reasons, as long as the labor is here, they prefer to harvest by hand. "Some are looking harder at mechanical harvesting now, though," he said.

Some growers, he said, contract for laborers through the H-2A program, a process, run by the U.S. Department of Labor, of securing farm workers from other countries. These growers' labor costs more, but the contracts leave them in a good position in a labor-shortage year like this one.

A slight shortage of transplants has delayed planting a bit, too. "We really didn't produce the volume of plants that we thought we had," he said. But the transplants aren't a problem. Many Georgia growers have additional plants grown on contract in Arizona and Texas.

Crop looks good

For the moment, the season's Vidalia onion crop is looking good, Torrance said. Growing conditions have been favorable, and most fields have good stands of onions that are growing well. Some fields, however, show signs of two viruses that are relative newcomers to the Georgia crop.

The tomato spotted wilt and iris yellow spot viruses were first detected in Vidalia onions in 2004. Torrance and other UGA Extension agents and scientists are helping growers identify infected plants. So far, the viruses haven't caused any yield or quality losses in Vidalia onions.

"We continue to be concerned about these viruses," Torrance said, "because they're here and we know how much they've hurt other areas. So far, though, our losses have been minimal. We hope it stays that way."

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

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

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