If winter's here, can spring be far behind? It certainly seems far to Vidalia onion growers, whose big-money crop has to survive a perilous winter to become the sweet onion the world has come to love.
At least the 1997 crop has gotten off to a good start.
"We needed a good start, if nothing else, for the morale boost," said Terry Kelley, a horticulturist with the University of Georgia Extension Service.
Vidalia onion growers ended the 1996 season on a dismal note. The season started with bad weather and got progressively worse until February and early-March freezes finished the damage. Growers lost as much as $50 million.
But the '97 crop has started out much better, said Rick Hartley and Reid Torrance, county extension directors in, respectively, Toombs and Tattnall counties, where more than 80 percent of Vidalia onions are grown.
"We're a little ahead of schedule here," Torrance said. Tattnall County farmers grow nearly half of the sweet specialty crop.
"A number of growers who set onions through December and into January are finishing up now," he said two weeks before Christmas. "We've probably got 90 percent of the crop in right now."
Near Vidalia, where the prized sweet onions get their name, growers weren't quite as far along. "We've got about 70 percent of the crop planted," Hartley said.
Both county agents said the onions started out well. "We had good transplants," Hartley said. "That's the key. We got good, pencil-sized, disease-free onions out of our beds."
Tattnall growers planted as many or slightly more onions than last year, Torrance said. But they didn't get ahead of schedule by starting early, which can lead to problems later on.
"We didn't jump the gun on transplanting," he said. "We started in earnest about the second week in November. We just had good labor available. And we had good working weather. We certainly weren't held up by rain."
In fact, the only hitch in the early planting, Torrance said, was a lack of rain in November. Some growers had to irrigate fields to get enough moisture into the ground before transplanting in the early going.
"We've had pretty fair moisture in December, though," he said. "We're off to a good start."
Starting well, though, may mean no more than scoring first in a ball game. "We've got a long, long way to go before this crop is made," Torrance said.
Vidalia onions are harvested in midspring, mostly during May. Controlled-atmosphere storage, though, now allows growers to stretch out the time they can market quality Vidalia onions.
The onions can withstand some hard winter weather, but extreme freezes and high winds can take a heavy toll.
Onions take the hardest hit when temperatures drop into the low teens after a spell of warm, sunny days. That causes serious damage to fresh, tender growth on the plants.
"Onion growers don't like a lot of warm weather early on," Hartley said. "A cooling trend is best. You don't want to get too much growth on the onions too early."
What growers want, he said, is weather cool enough to allow the onions' roots to get a good head start on the rest of the plant.
"If growers could order their weather, they'd want nights around 38-45 degrees and days around 60-65," Hartley said. And they'd want the winter cool-down and spring warm-up to be gradual trends.
With a long winter ahead, Vidalia onion growers aren't counting any profits yet. But after some rough seasons in recent years, they're happy with the way this one has begun.
"The onions are certainly starting better than in the past few seasons," Torrance said. "We've gotten off to a very good start."
(Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)