Heavy rainfall and high winds contributed to Georgia farmers growing fewer Vidalia onions this year, but demand for the popular vegetable and low yields for Texas onions helped keep prices steady.
According to Cliff Riner, coordinator of the University of Georgia Vidalia Onion and Vegetable Research Center, Georgia’s onion crop was limited this year due to an accumulation of inclement weather.
“We had temperatures as low as 15 degrees (Fahrenheit), hail storms, 40- to 50-mile-per-hour winds and really heavy rain,” Riner said.
Weather conditions added to a crop that was already short this year.
“We were already planting 400 to 600 acres fewer than what we have been planting. There weren’t many growers that increased their acreage planted after last year. We just harvested an average crop, with some major losses to fields that weren’t even brought in,” he said.
Riner said the biggest hit came on the second maturity group of onions, what is referred to as the “early main season.” Two major storms brought hail and winds through southeast Georgia just as fields were starting to mature.
“This group of onions makes up our largest acreage. Some fields weren’t harvested because of the hail damage, and where there was just strong wind, we just didn’t get the size we needed. When the wind lays the tops down and knocks the leaves off, the onion won’t increase in size as it would normally. Some growers suffered losses worse than others, but the weather brought some challenges (to all growers) this year,” Riner said.
Vidalia onions are harvested in only 20 state-sanctioned Georgia counties from mid-April through May.
Though production was lacking this season, farmers that did produce a good crop were rewarded with strong prices. Riner said the price could continue to rise through the summer, as demand is still strong and shipping is at full capacity.
A crop shortage in Texas this year also led to a robust market for Georgia producers, according to Riner.
“Back in January and February, the national price situation on onions was pretty low. However, all of that changed because the Texas crop was poor this year. They were only able to sell about 20 percent of their onions. That 80 percent loss really changed Vidalia’s outlook,” Riner said. “We could have had a very bad year price-wise, but it really turned out to be positive by the time our onions were ready.
Tim Coolong hopes to help boost Georgia farmers’ onion crop in the near future. The UGA Cooperative Extension horticulturist is working with Riner to study fertility treatments of Vidalia onions with the goal of boosting the industry, which had a farm gate value of $163 million in 2012.
This year, Coolong is studying 14 different fertilizer treatments and programs in search of one that best improves overall yield quality while reducing risks.
One potential risk is “bolting,” when an onion plant flowers prematurely.
“With our fertility trials, some varieties bolted very heavily. In some varieties, up to 30 percent bolted. Other varieties weren’t nearly that bad. Some were down around 5 to 10 percent,” Coolong said. “When they flower like that, you can’t sell them.”
Coolong is also studying fertilizer’s impact on onion flavor and storage life.
“Our goal at the end of this is to develop a common program that we can make available to growers to say, in most years, that this fertility program will manage their risk effectively,” Coolong said. “There may be an odd year where heavy rains require a more nitrogen-intense program to maintain high yields, but, on average, what we’re hoping to do is to take out some of that variability.”
Clint Thompson is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences based in Tifton.