Vidalia Goes Organic

For most Georgians, the name “Vidalia” provokes an immediate response: “onion.”

And that’s just the way Southeast Georgia onion growers like it, though there is an emerging addition to that word association game: “organic.” This is a natural evolution in the marketing of a crop that industry experts say contributes some $200 million annually to the Georgia economy.

“Turn on the TV and the word ‘organic’ is everywhere,” says Brian Stanley, a member of an onion-growing family of Toombs County. In recent years large grocery chains, responding to pressure from consumers, have pushed Vidalia onion growers to produce more organic varieties of their crop. “What the chain stores want is to have one place to get all their onions,” he says.

Today, only about 200 acres in the region have been designated for the organic onion; that’s from a total of 14,000 acres of the sweet vegetable currently grown in the 20 Southeast Georgia counties, with Toombs and Montgomery Counties at the center. A 1989 federal marketing order allows only onions grown in those counties to apply the name “Vidalia” to their onions, a nice market restriction for onion farmers.

“Just think, you can only grow Vidalia onions in about 20 counties, and now with the organics, you’re talking about a real narrow niche for a product you can’t get anywhere else in the world,” Stanley says. “We think that is going to be a nice little niche for us.”

The organic label requires certification from the Georgia Land Improvement Agency. “They send a guy out to inspect your field to make sure no fertilizers are present in the soil,” Stanley says. “Bug problems are handled with citrus-based sprays and the like.”

Stanley Farms has “10 to 15 acres” set aside for the organic onion, that’s out of a total 1,000 acres of the sweet crop. “We’ve got that learning curve to go through and we’re trying to do that,” Stanley says. But he expects to expand production of the organics. “We are seeing the organic sections in stores growing larger. We think this trend is here to stay.”

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