Not so sweet: Fight erupts over Vidalia onion | www.myajc.com

4
Nov

Not so sweet: Fight erupts over Vidalia onion | www.myajc.com

A battle has commenced over the future of the iconic Vidalia onion.

First came the whispers that reverberated from southeast Georgia farms to kitchens across the nation and to halls of power in Atlanta: Vidalia onion aren’t as sweet as it used to be. And they look odd. And go bad quickly.

Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black says onions harvested too early have resulted in inferior Vidalias with shorter shelf lives.

Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black heard the talk and decided to act. Now lines have been drawn in the low-sulfur sand that makes a Vidalia a Vidalia. Growers have lined up against growers. And growers have lined up against Black.

For several years, Black told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, onions harvested too early have resulted in inferior Vidalias with shorter shelf lives. That’s damaged the brand and caused the market to collapse, Black said. In response, the commissioner has imposed new regulations that set an April date before which no onion may be packed, giving the crop 10-15 additional days in ground.

While there is broad agreement in the industry that the Vidalia’s quality has been off, not everyone is convinced Black has found the right solution.

+ Vidalia Onions photo

What is a Vidalia onion?

Some farmers argue weather conditions and other factors determine when an onion crop is ready to harvest, and that growers are in the best position to make that decision. One prominent Vidalia farmer has hired former Attorney General Mike Bowers to fight the move in court.

It’s no minor issue. Vidalias are Georgia’s most valuable vegetable crop, with an estimated $150 million annual impact on the state economy. Just this year, state records show, Vidalias hit the market in April selling for $20 to $22 per 40 pound box. But, by by June, the height of the season, the price fell to $14 to $18 a box.

The Vidalia is a keystone of Georgia’s agricultural background. The famed bulbous vegetable is protected by federal trademark and state law that created a 20-county region outside of which an onion is merely an onion. Inside those southeast Georgia counties onions can grow up to be Vidalias.

For the past few seasons, Black said, there has been a lot of “noise in the marketplace. The onions are not what they used to be. The quality is not holding up.”

Before the rule change, which will take effect next year, a date was selected each year in early spring when farmers could ship onions to distributors and markets. Before that date, a farmer could have his onions inspected. If they met a top federal grade, the onions were good to go.

But that grade, Black said, didn’t take into account what makes a Vidalia a Vidalia: The wide, flat iconic shape and the sweet-enough-to-eat-raw taste.

“The rule will solidify consumer confidence through providing the high-quality onion for which the Vidalia is known,” Black said in an interview from a rocking chair in his Capitol Hill office. “The rule ensures the sweet taste, increases the shelf life, and allows for the proper, flat, shape.”

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