Alternative Crops

What’s our Vidalia® onion?

Jed Colquhoun, Professor and Extension Specialist, UW-Madison

In 1931, a Toombs County, Georgia farmer named Moses Coleman made what was then likely an alarming discovery – the onions he had planted weren’t hot as expected, but sweet. As the story goes, buyers were also surprised, as consumers expected hot onions, and Mr. Coleman found it challenging at first to sell his crop. Eventually word spread of the new sweet-tasting onion and he was able to sell 50-pound bags for $3.50 each, well above the usual price. As Mark Twain once said, “few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example” and as often happens the neighbors began planting sweet onion varieties.

So how did a mistaken planting in rural Georgia turn into a sought-after food? The location turned out to be ideal for several reasons. Now keep in mind that this all started before any interstates had been built and rural roadside stands selling onions from Vidalia County become popular among tourists meandering through the region. Vidalia Georgia was also home to a Piggly Wiggly supermarket distribution center that purchased and shipped the new crop to their stores, broadening the market well beyond rural Georgia. The area also enjoys mild winters and mellow soils without significant sulfur that are hospitable for sweet onion production.

But there are certainly other locations where sweet onions can be grown, so what makes the Vidalia onion so different? In fact, the early success in Georgia attracted attention and soon others were bringing in sweet onions grown around the Southeastern U.S. and marketing them as Vidalia onions. In 1985, the University of Georgia, Extension, and the U.S. and Georgia Departments of Agriculture hosted a series of meetings across the region to find ways to protect and market the brand. This activity spurred the Georgia legislature to give the state Department of Agriculture the power to dictate production districts among 20 counties now referred to as “the onion belt”, require certain Granex-type varieties and declare a marketing season. A few years later the state trademarked the brand and similar federal protections were put in place, along with the creation of an onion commission that supports significant research and development to advance the industry.

Since then agronomic and technical advances have increased production. Most importantly, controlled atmosphere storage was adapted from the apple industry and allowed for the onion crop to be stored for a longer marketing season. From 1989 to around 2000 production increased by three-fold.

Just like Mr. Coleman found out in the 1930’s when his neighbors started growing sweet onions, success attracts a crowd and the present-day sweet onion market is crowded with production from Mexico, Texas and Georgia. Weather, competition-related financial stress and market timing challenges have led to an anticipated 10-year low acreage in 2019. Despite these more recent challenges the crop represents a successful and unique story in American agriculture.

At this point you’re likely wondering what the Vidalia onion story has to do with Wisconsin potatoes and other specialty crops. In a Badger Beat article late last year Paul Mitchell and I summarized the unfortunate economic challenges in Wisconsin agriculture. In short, we’ve become almost too efficient in production for our own good, consumption is on a long, slow decline for many of our commodities and the resulting oversupply has pulled down farmgate prices significantly. We also introduced the idea of an informal specialty crop task force. We’ve been working on that effort for a few months now, learning from groups that have successfully (and sometimes, unsuccessfully) evolved production, processing and marketing, meeting with individuals and groups small and large, and most importantly immersing in new projects. This has not been an academic exercise but more of a focus on action as we learn by doing and rely on our experiences and networks more than our training. We’re trying new things, modifying those that show promise while dropping those that don’t.

And this is where the Vidalia onion comes in. What we’ve learned and heard so far has many parallels to the onion story:
• We need to tell the story of where food comes from better. The story of that sweet onion from Georgia spread from a rural farm stand to a national supermarket and continues to be known today. In contrast, we heard from vegetable processors this winter that expressed frustration in connecting with people about their products that seem to ideally fulfill current consumer trends: few ingredients, non-GMO, nutritious and packaged in a completely recycled container. But what’s the story behind that can of corn and how do we tell people about it in different ways?
• Across the board, there’s an interest in changing the production conversation from quantity to quality, from redder skin on stored potatoes to lower acidity cranberries that taste sweet when eaten fresh. One of the reasons why the Vidalia brand is preserved and recognized is that the onions are produced by registered growers and packers, a limited number of quality sweet onion varieties qualify, and the crop is inspected for quality.
• There’s a broad interest in regional agriculture solutions that emphasize the place and people that produce the food, and include an identifiable image and protected name, like the Vidalia onion or Napa Valley wine. Other commodities and locations are embarking on similar ventures, such as new place-based branding efforts from the North Carolina sweet potato growers.
• Wisconsin enjoys a diverse specialty agriculture industry, but we need to diversify yet again to include new crops and products that meet consumer preferences for nutrition, convenience, an artisanal feel and waste reduction. New products come to market at breakneck pace. In the 1990s the average supermarket stocked 7,000 products; today you’ll find over 47,000 products on the shelves. To that end, we’re searching far and wide for something new to grow and testing them out in Wisconsin climate and soils, ranging from new fruits that like the acidic soils where cranberries are grown to a high-protein African groundnut that fixes nitrogen, is drought tolerant and grows well in sandy soils. Like Mr. Coleman, who knows what we might stumble across – at one point someone had a harebrained idea to try potatoes in Wisconsin!
• We can benefit from exploring new markets and are currently working with two high-value sectors to learn more about such opportunities: exotic product or “deli markets” and international markets where development is rapid in all areas except food production, most often because of water scarcity.

Over the next several months we’ll continue down these and other paths, reporting back along the way the thoughts and ideas we come upon. If you’d like to join us on this journey to Destination Unknown – please let me know. We’d enjoy the company!