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Nippy New Year No Problem for Vidalia Onions

A nippy new year sent a shiver through Vidalia onion farmers. But they're breathing easier now. The frosty first week caused little damage to the sweet Georgia crop, said a University of Georgia scientist.

"We saw some damage to the leaves," said Al Purvis, a research horticulturist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at the Coastal Plain Experiment Station in Tifton, Ga.

"But the cold didn't damage the growing points in the onion plants," Purvis said. "That's certainly good news that there wasn't any major negative effect on the plants."

Reid Torrance is a county extension agent in Tattnall County, where about 60 percent of the Vidalia onions grow. He said the onions were prepared for the cold this year.

"It's not like it was in '96," Torrance said. A mid- February freeze then cost Georgia onion farmers about half their crop.

The cold weather came in a little more gradually this year, he said. And this year, the onions weren't in the middle of a growth spurt and were less susceptible to the damage.

"The tips of the foliage showed a little freezing. But we don't anticipate any long-term damage from this freeze," Torrance said.

Toombs County Extension Agent Rick Hartley said the below-20-degree cold in his county slowed the onions' growth.

"We saw a lot of wind and cold damage in our earliest- planted onions. But they should survive," Hartley said.

Onions planted in December in Toombs County lost most of their leaves from cold damage. But "new buds are beginning to emerge, and the plants should make a comeback," Hartley said.

Toombs County farmers grow about 20 percent of the Vidalia onion crop in Georgia.

The young onion crop, planted in November and December with harvest expected in April or May, still has a lot to go through before harvest.

"These next few weeks are critical," Hartley said. "Continuous mid-teen cold or an unseasonable warm period could escalate crop damage."

Georgia's onion crop has blossomed in recent years, with production jumping from just more than 138 million pounds in 1993 to more than 347 million pounds in 1998. The crop value has more than doubled in five years to $88.9 million.

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