You may be surprised to know that there are over 21 types of onions that are grown, and there are even more varieties available for commercial production. Upon first look, many may look similar, but each type has its own unique flavor and use. Vidalia onions, in particular, are some of the most unique of the bunch and are among the most sought-after onions in the entire consumer industry.
What Makes a Vidalia Onion a Vidalia Onion?
Vidalia onions get their name from where they were historically grown, in the town of Vidalia, Georgia. Vidalia onions are known for their flat shape and are considered “sweet” onions. They’re one of the most common kinds in the sweet onion family and are used for adding flavor to burgers, salads, and so much more.
The history dates back to 1931 when a farmer named Moses Coleman found that some of his onions didn’t have the usual “hot” taste but were mild and sweet. He struggled to sell these onions at first, but almost a decade later, when the State of Georgia began a Farmer’s Market in Vidalia and they were sold there, they became quite popular.
The sweet onion’s popularity continued to grow as Piggly Wiggly, a local grocery store chain headquartered in Vidalia, started selling them. Then in 1986, Georgia’s state legislature gave the Vidalia onion legal status, passing the “Vidalia Onion Act of 1986” which authorized a trademark for “Vidalia Onions” and limited the production area to only 13 counties in Georgia or certain subsets as defined by the state’s Commissioner of Agriculture. Soon after, it was named as the state’s official state vegetable in 1990.
Plant, Grow, Harvest, Market
The Vidalia onion market is a very competitive one. It is inclusive of a tight-knit group of growers that have really honed in on, and perfected, the art of growing onions. Each grower has a different approach to producing what he/she feels is the best onion for his/her buyers.
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One way that growers gain a competitive edge is by perfecting many combinations of fertility and supplemental products to affect the long-term outcome of a crop. For example, sulfur nutrient levels play a major factor in the sweetness of an onion bulb, while other nutrient levels and variables contribute to the overall size, hardness, and quality of an onion, but we won’t delve too deep into those well-kept secrets. As an ag consultant, I have been privy to many of the industry’s most well-kept secrets and I can tell you that the top players in the industry are nothing short of food production masterminds.
Onion planting and harvest is still largely done by hand. Labor crews are a major cost to every grower, but most growers see them as the best available option for putting plants in the ground and pulling mature bulbs out of the field.
Mechanical harvest is an option, but machine harvesters have no discretion between a good onion or a bad onion, thus creating more work and wasted time grading onions out at the packing shed. Harvesting crews are able to make a thorough pass over a field of onions while simultaneously leaving a large portion of undesirable onions in the field, thus aiding in the grading process at the packing house.
To put things into perspective a little bit, one of the packing sheds in the industry, at max capacity, can load out approximately 1 million net pounds of finished product per day during peak harvest. The same operation has a cold storage capacity to hold 375+ semi loads of cold onions at a given time – that’s about 16 million pounds of onions!
Brothers Brett and Rusty McLain, of McLain Farms, commented on the current Vidalia onion market and what it’s like for the family operation:
The onion industry has been good to us and we have been fairly successful with it so far, but it is tough, and it isn’t for everyone. We work hard and we enjoy it. We do it to take care of ourselves and the people around us.
We are extremely blessed; our daddy taught us a lot and gave us a great foundation for growing onions. We are constantly making improvements to keep up with the tech in the industry and have been fairly successful thus far. Growing onions is a very demanding lifestyle, it takes a lot out of us as well as our friends and family. There’s a ton of work that goes in to get a crop out of the field, but it is very rewarding to provide a quality product to our consumers and it is gratifying to be a part of the best onion industry in the world.