So far, the year has been kind to Vidalia onions. And Georgia's famous sweet crop will soon return the favor to onion lovers everywhere. University of Georgia experts say the onions' quality should be the best it's been in years.
Quality on tap for 1999 onions
"Quality is the thing that gets our growers excited," said Reid Torrance, a UGA Extension Service agent in Tattnall County. "And these onions look good. We've had the least disease pressure we've had in eight or 10 years."
Less disease means better quality in Vidalia onion fields, Torrance said. It's a blessing for growers. It means their onions look, sell and please customers better.
"We had some variety trials in the growing area. We didn't have to spray them once," said George Boyhan, a horticulturist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
Good weather for onions
"This year has been relatively dry in the winter and spring," he said. The diseases that often plague onion growers prefer damp conditions.
"The nights were consistently cool and the days mostly sunny," he said. "That kept the onions growing nicely but not too fast. With onions, excessive growth invites diseases."
Boyhan said even the onions the growers set aside for later markets will benefit from the improved quality going into controlled-atmosphere storage.
Yields not as good as quality
Torrance said the harvest started in a few fields right after Easter and was picking up in the second week of April. "We're beginning to get more mature onions," he said, predicting the harvest would start in earnest around April 19.
This year's yields, he said, won't be quite as exciting as the quality.
"That goes back to some poor stands we got in the fall," he said. "It was hot and dry, and we had some transplant shock that kept our growers from getting the kind of stands we like to have."
Some of the earliest-planted fields, too, may lose as much as half their yields to "doubles" and seed stems, he said. Those are onions whose biological clocks have clicked into their "second" year, starting their reproductive phases.
Probably the biggest problem, he said, is that the weather turned hot and dry in early April. "The growers just haven't been able to get around with as much water as the onions have needed," he said.
"Those things will hurt our yield," Torrance said. "But overall, we'll have good yields. They just won't be super. The quality is excellent, though. And that's what we tend to get the most excited about."
(Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)