Campbell Vaughn: Vidalia onions are oh so sweet for Georgia economy

A worker plants Vidalia onions on an onion farm in Lyons, Ga. Vidalia onions are Georgia’s No. 1 vegetable commodity with about 12,000 acres planted annually. According to the Vidalia Onion Committee, this commodity has an economic value averaging $150 million yearly. DAVID GOLDMAN/FILE/ASSOCIATED PRESS

What is the significance of April 12th 2017 in Georgia Agriculture? It is the absolute first day set by the Georgia Department of Agriculture that the oh-so-delicious Vidalia onion can be packaged and sold.

 

Fried onion ring lovers unite.

BLTs can be taken to the next level.

Hamburgers were tasting so bland.

Hurray for April 12th.

How did the Vidalia onion come to be? The Vidalia onion story took root in 1931 in Toombs County, Ga., when a farmer named Moses Coleman discovered the onions he had planted weren’t hot as he had expected, but sweet. He sold those onions for $3.50 per 50-pound bag, which was a large price in the Great Depression days. Other farmers saw the opportunity and their farms started producing the sweet, mild onions.

As fortune would have it, Piggly Wiggly grocery store happened to be headquartered in Vidalia. Recognizing the potential of the peculiar produce, the gentlemen who ran “The Pig” gladly helped farmers from all over the Vidalia area get their newfound sweeties on store shelves.

Vidalia was also at the juncture of some of south Georgia’s most widely traveled highways, so the state of Georgia built a farmers’ market there and it was a thriving tourist business. Word of “those sweet onions from Vidalia” began to spread throughout the state, and a name was born.

The reason the Vidalia onion is so sweet isn’t because of what is added to the soil, but what isn’t in it. Sulfur is naturally occurring in soils, but in Toombs County and surrounding counties sulfur levels are low. Low levels of sulfur result in a milder taste with less heat.

To keep the Vidalia onion a Georgia-only commodity, Georgia passed legislation in 1986 giving Vidalia onions legal status. This legislation also defined the 20-county production area. Only these 20 counties in Georgia can produce the official Vidalia onion.

Vidalia onions are Georgia’s No. 1 vegetable commodity with about 12,000 acres planted annually. According to the Vidalia Onion Committee, this commodity has an economic value averaging $150 million yearly.

Shelf life for Vidalias can be a challenge to growers. I remember my mother would store them in panty hose in the basement to try to get some extra time with her culinary treats. Beginning in 1990, technology borrowed from the apple industry was adapted to begin the controlled atmosphere storage of Vidalia onions.

With production typically lasting from April to June, 125 million pounds of Vidalia onions can be put into controlled storage for up to seven months. This allows for extended Vidalia onion sales into the fall holiday season.

Similar to Girl Scouts with their annual cookie sale fundraiser, Georgia’s 163,000 kids involved in UGA’s 4-H program use the sale of Vidalia onions to raise money for scholarships, projects and other activities. Participating 4-H’rs get “onion credit” based on what they sell. If you would like to purchase some Vidalia onions from the Richmond County 4-H fundraiser, we are taking orders at the UGA Extension office until May 9.

We have 5-, 10-, 25- and 50-pound bags available for this great cause. Please support our local 4-H project.

 

Reach Campbell Vaughn, the UGA Agriculture and Natural Resource agent for Richmond County, by e-mailing augusta@uga.edu.

 

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