Source: The Packer

Retail buyers should expect smaller volumes and a later start for this year's Vidalia sweet onion deal.

The deal could start up to two weeks later than normal after subfreezing temperatures struck the region late January and again in early and late February.

While Vidalia grower-shippers normally start shipments in mid-April, this season, growers said shipments will likely begin around April 27.

Temperatures fell into the mid- to upper teens during the first freezes and into the upper 20s Feb. 24.

"This weather has been unreal," said R.E. Hendrix, president of Hendrix Produce Inc., Metter. "It's warm one day and cold the next. The plants don't know whether to grow or to go back into the ground."

Hendrix said his crops saw a lot of heavy frost that burned some of the onions' tips. He said he expects this season to be lower volume than last season.

In early estimates, growers planted 11,100 acres this season, down from last season's 11,500 acres, said Bob Stafford, manager of the Vidalia Onion Business Council. That's considerably smaller than the 14,100 2003-07 average.

Though growers are normally required to report their acreage to the Georgia Department of Agriculture by March 1, Stafford said it wouldn't be until after a March 13 industry meeting, when the industry would have a more firm estimate of this year's acreage, Stafford said.

The season's starting date also hasn't been set yet. A 14-member advisory committee, consisting of growers, shippers, county agents and Stafford, plans to meet in late March to update the industry on the conditions of the onions and recommend an official start date to Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin, Stafford said.

Because of the low temperatures, Michael Hively, general manager of Bland Farms LLC, Glennville, said industry volume should be 10% lower than last season.

Hively called this season's offshore sweet onion prices consistent. He said that should make for favorable domestic markets.

"I think it will be a strong Vidalia market this year because Mexico and Texas are both down this year," Hively said. "Sweet onions as an industry will be down at least 20% to 25%. That should keep prices stronger than usual."

Bland expects to ship 2.1 million 40-pound cartons of the deal's 5 million boxes.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture March 3 reported 40-pound cartons of Mexican grano sweet onions selling for $12 for jumbos.

That compares to last season in early March when 40-pound cartons of yellow granex-type jumbos sold for $12.

In late February, growers quoted 40-pound cartons of Mexican sweet onions being sold in the mid- to upper teens.

Texas and Mexican growers ship the round grano-type sweet onions, while Vidalia growers pack the flatter granex types.

Peruvian sweet onions normally run through the middle to end of February, while Mexican-grown onions normally start in early February and run through the start of the Vidalia deal.

L.G. "Bo" Herndon Jr., president of L.G. Herndon Jr. Farms Inc., Lyons, said Vidalia plants transplanted during the late fall likely suffered 7% to 10% losses from the cold.

"We have had a harder winter this year than we have had in a long time," he said.

Depending on the time of the year when they were set and their growing stages, Herndon said some fields suffered severe losses, as much as 20%, while others sustained losses of only 2%.

R.T. Stanley, president of Stanley Farms, said the cold burned foliage that was beginning to grow on the onions during the plants' tender stage. He said damage was undetermined in late February.

Other than the subfreezing temperatures, growers report crop conditions appear favorable.