VIDALIA, GA — There is debate on how dramatically seed stem will affect this year's Vidalia onion crop, but already fields here show marked presence of the bolting flowers that indicate the condition — and more pop up every day.
While quality is not affected, volume will be reduced, with some growers projecting that one-third to one-half of the crop will not be suitable for retail. The region should still ship as many as 3 million boxesthis season, down from 4.1 million last year and 5.4 million in 2011.
On April 15, the official start of the season, Vidalia onion growers were dismayed to notice a significant number of plants bolting, a condition brought on by stress.
Vidalia onions are planted in December; Georgia had an abnormally warm December and January, followed by an equally atypical March, which saw near- or record lows for the entire month. Torrential rains in March flooded fields and likely were the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.
The rains and cooler temperatures have also led to darker husks and staining throughout the region during the first two weeks of the season. While most growers are optimistic this will abate as the deal moves into early May, they also say it is still too soon to know for certain.
Delbert Bland of Bland Farms LLC in Glennville, GA, believes that despite the seed stem issue Vidalia will still have enough onions to go around.
"Our crop's going to yield a little better than normal, so it could very well wash out OK," he said. "Right now, we're very optimistic about the crop and quality especially. In reality, there are still going to be plenty of onions for everybody to enjoy."
Mr. Bland is wary of projecting loss percentages because "there's no way to win. You can't be exact for sure."
The good news is that plants not gone to seed are in very good shape. Seed stem is not a bacteria or fungus - temperature extremes or others stressors tell the onion it is time to reproduce rather than focus on the bulb it is growing. Shortly after harvest, the stem rots and the core of the onion rapidly follows.
The result is like "sticking a dagger right through the heart of the onion," said John Shuman of Shuman Produce Inc. in Reidsville, GA.
"Seed breeders from around the world intentionally flood their fields to stress that plant so it goes to flower and bolts and goes to seed stem because that's how it reproduces," he said. "We have some level of seed stems every year in the crop, but I've never seen it at this level."
Said Mr. Bland, "It's nothing that the consumer will ever see, it's just more we have to cull out."
This is the second year in a row Mother Nature has dealt Vidalia growers a harsh hand. Last year, the fungus downy mildew took 20 percent of the crop.
"We'd never really had that widespread experience with downy mildew until last year, especially not across the entire industry," Mr. Shuman said. "We really didn't know what we had, we knew we had some spray applications to slow it down but we knew we couldn't kill it. The difference this year is that with seed stem you can walk in the field and if you care to get your feet dirty you can count. Once an onion goes to seed stem it is going to be a seed stem and it just becomes a function of mathematics at that point."
While quality will still be good on the Vidalia crop, production will be hampered as problematic onions are graded out at the packinghouse.
Said Mr. Shuman, "Our labor bills are going to go up. We can grade out seed stem, it's very easy to grade out at the packing facility, but it's going to slow us down and that means the whole industry is going to be slowed down. It's disappointing for sure to find out in the final hours that we have this issue. The good news is we still have a crop, we're still going to bring it to market and we are optimistic the industry will still have several million boxes to bring to market."