Consumers and retailers will get a bonus from Vidalia, GA, this year.
Torrential rains in the early part of the Vidalia onion season led to a widespread outbreak of seed stem that reduced volume and led to a poor first half. But from May 1 on, blue skies, hot temperatures and steady winds were the order of the day, resulting in a in a bumper crop of excellent quality onions that will keep promotable volumes available through Labor Day.
The unexpected bonus will give consumers who feel like they missed out on the early part of the Vidalia deal a chance to catch up - and will also give retailers a chance to promote Vidalias much later in the summer than usual.
"The season started a little rocky with the early issues but it's turned out to be a season of excellent volume with quality looking great out of storage," said John Williams of Herndon Farms in Lyons, GA. "We should have plenty of onions to ship through Labor Day.
"The research we did in 2012 with the Nielsen Perishables Group showed us that consumers are willing to pay a 20 percent premium for sweet onions," said Delbert Bland, owner and president of Bland Farms LLC in Glennville, GA. "With Vidalia being the most popular variety, we've got plenty of volume to supply our customers so they can make the most of the season before shifting into another variety."
"We had as good a second half as we have ever had," said John Shuman of Shuman Produce in Reidsville, GA. "We've been truly blessed with outstanding quality and promotable volumes that will last all the way through Labor Day. This is a perfect opportunity for retailers to do some late summer promotions with Vidalias."
Some retailers were scared off Vidalias when it appeared there would not be a large enough crop to cover ads. Vidalia growers want those retailers to know it is not too late to get back in the game.
"There is a very high quality Vidalia crop in storage," said Richard Pazderski, who heads up the Vidalia operation for Utah Onions in Syracuse, UT. "There is very promotable volume and it will be marketed at unusually competitive prices for this time of year, compared to normal years. Basically, the best sweet onion in the world is waiting patiently to be offered to consumers at prices that would normally be unheard of for this time of year. It really should be the perfect opportunity for retailers to make up for lost sales during the early part of the Vidalia season."
Vidalia growers were as surprised as anyone by the second half turnaround.
"I think the entire industry was surprised at the yields at the tail-end of the crop," said Walt Dasher of G&R Farms in Glennville, GA. "A lot of volume really came on in the fields in the last week and pushed yields higher than we expected. Quality is still very good, price has come down due to the amount of product being put away in storage. Now we really need to get a market increase in order to help us offset the high cost that is involved with storing onions. Customers can continue to promote Vidalias because supplies are good and the quality is there to back that up."
When supplies appeared to be short early in the deal, Vidalia growers "did exactly what they should have done at the time and with the information at hand — they sent up warning flares," Pazderski said. "Heavy promotion at retail would have seemed to have been a reckless move and though it wasn't necessarily discouraged, it certainly wasn't encouraged at the level that it would normally have been.
"Everyone was happy to be able to fill the orders they were getting at the time and wanted to manage inventories in a responsible way that would give the 2013 program enough longevity for retailers to keep Vidalias on their shelves at least into July."
But, "This season has turned out to be quite different than what was originally projected. Hindsight is always 20/20," Pazderski continued. "It might appear that the Vidalia deal was mishandled by the growers during the first several weeks of shipping and that there may have been an effort to create a stronger-than-average market by leveraging a severe supply shortage. I can honestly say that this is not true in any way. There was a solid consensus that a possible disaster was imminent."
With the turnaround, growers who once thought their storage units would be one-third to half filled at this point in the season instead find they are at capacity.
By the time growers realized they had a bumper crop on their hands, "it was too late for the retailers to react," Pazderski said. Many had switched to other domestic programs and even though Vidalia growers have worked to get the word out about availability, "movement continues to be much slower than normal for this time of year" despite extremely competitive pricing.
Meanwhile, Pazderski said, "It's tough to sit back and look at such a beautiful crop sitting in the controlled-atmosphere storages down here, knowing that product of this quality would be very welcomed by consumers in any market, but also knowing that we need heavier promotion to get it all in the pipeline and in front of them. I hope that retail promotion will increase significantly in the coming weeks to accomplish this. But, either way, what should have been a very solid year for both growers and retailers will likely end up average at best."