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Prices Down as Onion Harvest Hits High Gear

Most Vidalia onion varieties are coming out of the fields now. And so far, they're heading to the markets with palate-pleasing quality, say University of Georgia experts.

"Overall, the quality is good, and the yields are about average," said Reid Torrance, a University of Georgia Extension Service agent in Tattnall County. "It's not a bumper crop. But so far it's a good crop."

Torrance said problems with bacterial and fungal diseases have been limited to isolated fields.

"We've just harrowed those fields up," he said. "So far, we haven't had any severe outbreaks. The latest-maturing onions should be ready in three weeks. So barring any exceptionally bad weather, we should be able to escape any major disease problems."

Heart of the Harvest

Growers have harvested the earliest varieties and are moving the midseason varieties that make up most of the market. "We're getting into the traditional varieties now, the onions we built this market on," Torrance said. "We're really just getting into the heart of the harvest."

David Curry, a UGA Extension Service agent in Toombs County, said the onions in his area are looking good as the harvest hits high gear. Farmers in Tattnall and Toombs counties grow about 80 percent of the sweet Georgia crop.

"At this point, we're looking pretty good, as far as production is concerned," Curry said. "We've probably got a fourth of our onions harvested or clipped and bagged."

Workers typically clip the tops off of the onions, bag them and leave them in the field to dry, or cure. The onions then go to packing sheds, where they're further dried, sorted, packed and shipped.

Most Onions Not Yet Harvested

Tattnall County growers have harvested only about 15 percent of their onions, Torrance said. Officially, the Georgia Agricultural Statistics Service reports the harvest at 22-percent complete.

Three onion varieties won't be included in this year's harvest. "Sugar Queen, Spring Express and Sweet Dixie have been eliminated from the crop by the state commissioner of agriculture," George Boyhan, a horticulturist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

All three were early-maturing onions that some considered too hot to be the mild, sweet Vidalia onions shoppers are looking for. But the loss of one of the three wasn't entirely a good thing, Boyhan said. Sugar Queen, a Japanese overwintering type of onion, has strong disease resistance, too.

"There were some complaints about the flavor," Boyhan said. "Some people felt it had a little too much bite to it. But the disease resistance was an important advantage."

Prices Concern Growers

Battling fungal and bacterial diseases seems a never-ending fight for sweet-onion growers. Heading into the harvest, though, they'd had an easier time this year than most. "Our growers are most concerned about what's going to happen with these prices," Curry said.

Wholesale prices that started around $18 per 50-pound bag dropped to mostly around $12 a bag heading into the last week of April. Wholesale and retail prices may differ greatly at times. But with the most popular varieties now moving into the market and prices generally headed down, shoppers can look for some bargains on their favorite sweet onions.

"As a trend, you can always get the best onions at the best price around the first of May," Torrance said. "That's been true for 20 years, and it's still true."

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

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