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The Nation | DISPATCH FROM VIDALIA, GA.

Onion Harvest Is a Real Tear-Jerker

Agriculture: Georgia's crop of Vidalia Sweets is the worst in the area's history, with the yield down 60%. Weather, fungus get the blame.

June 04, 2002|JEFFREY GETTLEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VIDALIA, Ga. — A confused onion doesn't taste good.

And this growing season, with the crazy weather, Vidalia's famously sweet onions got mighty confused. First it was boiling hot, then it froze, then it got boiling hot again.

The onions, distinctive to this slice of southeast Georgia, were attacked by fungus, felled by sidewall rot, deformed by mutant bulbs--kind of like Siamese twins--and victimized by all sorts of other bad things.

As the last of the sweet onions rolled down the sorting line last week, the disastrous news rolled in: It was the worst season in Vidalia's history, with a $50-million loss, 60% of the yield destroyed, dozens of farmers facing bankruptcy and the future of this signature crop--the sweet taste of the South, the onion that makes you cry only when it's gone--in serious peril.

"We've never seen nothing like this in all of Georgia," said Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin. "These boys out in the fields, they're hurting. A lot may never come back."

People here, in a ring of 20 counties surrounding Vidalia, live the onion life. Generations of small farmers harvest the onions, charity organizations rely on them for fund-raisers, a long-standing socioeconomic hierarchy is built on the work and countless onion-inspired products have been concocted. There's even onion fudge. (The onions here may be sweet, but they ain't that sweet.)

The Vidalia Onion Committee, a dues-paying organization of 132 growers, has gone to court several times to protect its native crop. Judges have ruled that only onions of a specific variety grown in the 20 southeast Georgia counties can carry the name "Vidalia Sweet."

They lack typical onion sass because of the low sulfur content of the region's soil, which makes the onions less acidic.

"I'll eat one straight up, like an apple," said Reid Torrance, a state agriculture advisor working in Georgia's onionland. "Of course, it's got to be the right onion."

The ruinous season unpeeled like this:

In November, when 14,458 acres of Vidalia seedlings were planted, the conditions were perfect: mid-70s, sunny, a touch of rain.

The onions grew very fast.

In December and January--fertilizing time--the good weather continued.

But then Mother Nature went schizophrenic.

In early February, it got unseasonably warm, with highs in the 80s. The way Torrance tells it, heavy on the personification, "the onions got confused and thought it was time to come on out."

Just as the bulbs began to mature, a sudden freeze hit on Feb. 28, killing new growth.

Then, a few weeks later, temperatures climbed into the 90s and stayed there for a week. "Those li'l guys [the onions] were sweltering. They couldn't take it," Torrance said.

The extreme fluctuations caused premature rot, leaf damage and aberrations such as half-formed second bulbs. The weakened onions fell victim to an outbreak of stemphylium fungus that ate up their tawny skins and killed their taste.

"I've never seen a crop go down so fast," said Torrance, who has been working with onions for 18 years. "You'd see just a little bitty freckle of rot one day. And then bam! Two days later, that onion would be applesauce."

Shad Dasher, who surely has one of the best names in the sweet-onion business, remembers walking onto his farm in April and feeling his heart sink into the mud. "I went for acres without finding a single onion I could sell," he said.

His crop was so decimated, he harvested only 450 sacks of onions. Last year his haul was 21,000.

He has five kids, including an 8-week-old boy, a couple of trucks, equipment to maintain and a $170,000 farm loan to pay off by the end of summer. He carries crop insurance, but that won't even cover his expenses. He's worried now about paying the light bill.

His eyes mist up when he talks about the others.

"I got a woman who worked for my daddy who I used to pick up in the projects," said Dasher, 36. "Every year she put in weeks for me. She needs the money. This year I could only hire her for 14 hours. Know how that feels?"

On a recent day at the G&R Farms warehouse in Glennville, 30 miles south of Vidalia, one glance at the sorting line showed how bad a season it was.

With flakes of onion skin floating in the air and the squeak, rattle and thump of thousands of bulbs getting fed into machines, the sorters hunched over the conveyor belt, working nonstop.

For every 10 onions that slid past, they plucked out six or seven, filling waste carts faster than forklifts could empty them. Rotten onions spilled out, rolling across the concrete floor. Some were mushy and black, others deformed, others seemingly healthy until closer inspection revealed nasty brown tissue at their core.

"You should be able to run a sorting line blindfolded," Dasher said. During a normal year, no more than one out of 10 onions is culled.

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