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Onion Fund-raisers Sweet for Clubs, Growers

Out on the farm this spring, the bottom fell out of the market for Vidalia onions, the one money crop John McDonald grows. In the city, many school students were looking forward to a summer camp they couldn't afford.

Both hardships, though, were softened because the two groups, rural and urban, got together beforehand on a solution to each other's challenge.

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Photo:  Shirley Williamson

Lauren Jolly cuts shipping netting from around 25-pound bags of Vidalia onions for her 4-H club's fund-raiser.

4-H Fund-raiser

"Each year our 4-H'ers sell Vidalia onions as a fund-raiser," said Shirley Williamson, a University of Georgia Extension Service agent in suburban Columbia County.

For Williamson, the annual sale funds her 4-H program and gets kids to camp who might otherwise be unable to go. For McDonald, the Columbia 4-H'ers and other clubs lock in profits.

It's a sweet deal for shoppers, too, though the cost is almost always higher than in stores. For the extra money, buyers:

  • Help a youngster, most likely a relative or neighbor, learn about working, the value of money and striving toward goals.
  • Help a worthy organization earn operating funds.
  • Help themselves, because club-sale onions are the sweetest there are.

Club-sale Onions a Sweet Success

"We strive to do a perfect job with these onions," McDonald said. "I know 100 percent is hard to achieve, but we shoot for it."

And it's not just McDonald.

"Probably half of our growers have some club sales," said Reid Torrance, a Tattnall County Extension Service agent. Tattnall farmers grow more Vidalia onions than in any other Georgia county, and fund-raisers take about 10 percent of their crop.

"They usually try to do a better job with club sales," Torrance said. "They want to be sure they get the very best quality. Some of our growers pack fund-raiser onions in a different packing line."

McDonald typically overfills each bag, too. "We always give good weights," he said. So the price per pound is always lower than it seems.

Loyal Customers

Growers say their fund-raiser partners are their most loyal customers. "I added one Alabama club this year," McDonald said. "All of the others are long-term relationships."

McDonald grows 30 acres of onions in Treutlen County, a dozen or so miles from Vidalia. He sells less than a third of his crop through club sales. "I wish I could sell more through clubs," he said.

More than a dozen Georgia 4-H clubs have onion-sale fund-raisers. Columbia County 4-H'ers have sold McDonald Farm onions for eight years. The sale is successful every year. This year they sold nearly 11 tons of Vidalia onions.

Vidalia Onion Classes

To make sure their fund-raisers succeed, Williamson and 4-H program assistant Paula Poss teach agriculture-related classes in club meetings.

In one of three such classes this year, they showed students three containers of soil. One held soil from McDonald Farm. Another had heavy-clay soil from their own county. The third contained a commercial topsoil mix.

Asked to pick the best soil for Vidalia onions, the students almost always pick the rich-looking commercial soil. From there, the teachers go on to explain how this sweet Georgia crop grows.

All that education is necessary, Williamson said. "Think about it," she said. "You're a 5th grader, and 4-H wants you to sell onions. Yuck! They don't usually eat onions. They want to sell candy or cookies."

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Photo: Shirley Williamson

Volunteer Charlie Griffin and some Columbia County 4-H'ers wait for the next customer to drive through the fund-raiser distribution space donated by a local bank.

Camp Discounts,
'Six Flags' Tickets

Williamson goes all-out to promote the sale.

"We focus on how special Vidalia onions are and how the kids can earn money for a discounted or even free trip to camp (normally $160)," she said. "Other prizes include a Columbia County 4-H T-shirt and free Six Flags tickets."

The 4-H'ers sell Vidalia onion cookbooks, too -- this year more than 400 of them. Every 4-H'er who sells anything gets a 4-H cup, pencil and sticker. Everyone who buys onions or a cookbook gets a letter of appreciation, storage tips and a few recipes.

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

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