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Competition from improved Peruvian agronomy and economy puts a twist on onion future

It’s been about 40 years since south Georgia Vidalia onion growers took what was once just a local favorite and turned it into an international food star. In fact, those farmers were so successful they created an entirely new category at the supermarket: The sweet onion deal that now goes around the calendar.

Vidalia still wears the crown in that category. But coming in a close second is the Peruvian sweet onion deal engineered by the same players who brought the Vidalia to prominence.peru-onions-future-01Agricola Pampa Baja SAC is dedicated to the production, processing and marketing of horticultural products destined for the international market.

The success of the Vidalia led consumers to ask produce managers why they couldn’t have sweet onions all the time. That in turn led produce buyers to ask growers why. Which led Vidalia growers to ask that same question.

There had to be some place else in the world that could grow an onion comparable to the Vidalia, that same combination of soil and climate that would produce a perfect, sweet, low-pungency Granex onion that would be instantly familiar to Vidalia lovers.

The search was on. Texas (where the sweet onions that provided the parentage of the Vidalia came from), Mexico, Washington state, even New York contributed to the deal.

But it was Peru that provided the perfect counterpart to the Vidalia deal. The season starts in July and goes through January. The Vidalia deal begins in April and runs through August.

“The Peruvian onion is actually identical to a Vidalia onion in more aspects than one. The shape and the look and everything is identical. It’s hard to tell the difference between a Vidalia and a Peruvian, it’s the exact same seed,” said Delbert Bland of Bland Farms LLC in Glennville, GA, one of the first growers in the Peruvian deal. “The Peruvian is a little cleaner and looks a little better. You’re growing in a desert there so day in and day out the quality is better than in Vidalia, you don’t have the moisture issues so in turn you don’t have decay problems. You do have some problems down there but nothing compared to growing a crop in Vidalia.”

Even better, Vidalia obviously already had the infrastructure to process and ship onions. With the port of Savannah roughly an hour away, it was a simple matter to ship Peruvians onions to the U.S. and utilize packing sheds and labor that were sitting idle half the year.

Peruvian partners needed the business. U.S. growers had the market. It was a perfect match.

Soon, consumers were enjoying Peruvian sweets half the year when they couldn’t get Vidalias.

Now the Georgia Port Authority accounts for 8.4 percent of Georgia’s total employment and many of those jobs are attributable directly to the year-round sweet onion deal.

The Peruvian sweet is “well-established, it comes right on the heels of Vidalia and is the same variety we’re growing in Vidalia,” said John Shuman of Shuman Produce Inc. in Reidsville, GA, who grew his first Peruvian crop in 1998. “It’s a part of the culture now and a part of consumer expectations, they look forward to it on the shelf in the fall and winter. It’s an ideal growing region — sandy soil, temperate climate. We’ve got fair trade agreements with Peru and we are creating thousands of jobs there and in Georgia. It’s an economic driver.”

The deal obviously changed the lots of many Peruvians. Some U.S. companies partner with local growers and purchase a crop. Others have invested in infrastructure and control their own crop.

As a result Peruvian agronomy has improved dramatically. Long known for asparagus, Peru is now a major exporter of grapes and citrus as well.

The Peruvian economy has also improved. Which could change the face of the Peruvian sweet program. It’s easy to make a deal with a hungry man. When that same man has money in his pocket and options, things are different.

Said John Williams of Herndon Family Farms in Lyons, GA, which got into the Peruvian deal at the start of this decade, “I hear stories about how it used to be. The first year we were basically a broker, now we partner directly with a grower. They have the most sophisticated operation I’ve seen as far as sizing and packing and loading, keeping them cool under a nice shelter, not just a little tent. The growing down there is definitely getting more and more sophisticated. They’re setting up holding ponds for water to irrigate out of, there’s some major construction, like a facility for the pumphouse. I was amazed – this was really sophisticated farming.”

That kind of progress has spurred the competition from other crops.

Said Walt Dasher of Glennville, GA’s G&R Farms, “The grape production companies are able to pay a considerably higher wage to the workers and they are luring a lot more of the employees away from the normal onion/asparagus deal. It’s becoming huge business and taking so many more employees there’s the potential for it to become harder to find field workers and packing shed workers than they’ve ever experienced in the past. It doesn’t appear it’s going to be a big issue for anybody this year, but just sitting around and having coffee with guys down there, those are some of the concerns they see coming down the road.”

New crops are also competing for land and water. While there is plenty of available land, sweet onions are a particular crop — that’s why they’re not grown in, say, Alabama, or Kansas.

“Peru’s on fire with grapes, asparagus is making a comeback and it’s always been big down there, between all of it, what’s happening, there’s plenty of land, but only a limited amount suitable for onions,” Bland said.

There is also now competition for the Peruvian sweet crop. Spain, Colombia, the Netherlands, Nicaragua and Panama are now major markets for Peruvian onions.

“Competition comes in all kinds of forms,” Bland said.

What kind of impact that may eventually have on the Peruvian deal is unknown. Dasher said anecdotal reports suggest this year’s crop could reach less volume than in previous years, that some smaller growers have gotten out of the deal entirely and some larger ones have cut back.

Said Bland, “These farmers that you’re dealing with down there are in much better position than they were when we started. They either grew onions or they cut firewood up to sell and that’s a tough way to make a living. The economy has changed tremendously in the last 10 years especially, every year when I go back I’m impressed with how they’re growing and the things they’re doing down there. I used to have 45 different growers in Peru and we weren’t doing but about a third or half what we’re doing now — we had every little pig pen and everything you can imagine in every corner that would produce a couple hectares of onions. Now we have larger fields and irrigation and different things that permits us to grow a lot more acreage in a bigger area.”

Said Dasher, “I think you’re going to see it get harder and harder for the onion guys to find reasonable land to rent with water — and another big issue is what I call clean water, water that is suitable for irrigation purposes; we’re beginning to see some salt intrusion into some of the water passages down there, so you’re seeing a lot of scrambling around with all the growers, including grapes and asparagus — to find the clean water. That as a whole puts a lot more pressure on everybody. It’s a race against time to find the areas where they can have suitable water and land to rent or purchase and still be in a feasible financial spot.”