The Vidalia sweet onion is perhaps the greatest agricultural success story in Georgia's history. Mose Coleman,
a Toombs County farmer, is believed to have been the first grower of the now popular commodity. In 1931 Coleman discovered that his onions
were not hot, but rather mild. He managed to sell his onions for $3.50 per fifty-pound bag, a very good price at the time.
Other farmers in the area, who through the depression years had not been able to get a fair price for their produce, thought
Coleman had found a gold mine. They soon began to produce onions too.
Georgia's Onion Industry
In the 1940s the state of Georgia built a farmers' market in Vidalia to help the growers sell their produce.
Before the construction of the interstate highway system Vidalia was at the crossroads of some of the most important north-south highways. Word spread among travelers about the tasty
sweet onions from Vidalia. The Piggly Wiggly supermarket chain also maintained a distribution center in Vidalia and purchased
the locally grown onions when they were in season. Vidalia onions began showing up in Piggly Wiggly stores across the region.
Acreage grew steadily over the next twenty years, and by the mid-1970s farmers in the area devoted about 600 acres to the
In the 1970s a push was made for Vidalia onions to be marketed nationally, and growers began mounting additional promotional
efforts. Their success led to the establishment of the Glennville sweet onion, named after the Tattnall County
city situated about thirty-five miles southeast of Vidalia. Onion festivals were, and still are, held in both Glennville and
Vidalia each May. In the late 1970s and the early 1980s growers formed marketing groups or cooperatives in an effort to enhance
marketing and to prevent bootleggers from selling rebagged onions from other states as Vidalias. In the early 1980s one farmer
group advertised that consumers should look for the yellow tag on the bag of the "true" Vidalia sweet onions. Their efforts
were reasonably successful and created quite a stir among growers, because some bona fide Vidalia onion farmers were not members
of that group. As a result of the continued confusion over what constituted a genuine Vidalia or Glennville sweet onion, growers
decided they all needed to work together.
to this need for one product and one voice for the state's fledgling onion industry, local University of Georgia extension agents put together a beltwide seminar in 1985 to discuss the feasibility of such an effort. This was followed
by a year-long series of extension meetings in Reidsville, in which U.S. Department of Agriculture, Georgia Department of Agriculture, and University of Georgia personnel were involved. As a result of these meetings the growers identified several goals and
made several important agreements. First, they settled on the Vidalia name and agreed to pursue protection of their commodity.
The Vidalia Onion Act, passed by the Georgia legislature in 1986, defined the twenty counties in which Vidalia onions could be grown, and the state's Department of Agriculture was
given ownership of the Vidalia name as it applied to onions. A grower referendum for the establishment of an Onion Commodity
Commission failed in 1986 but passed in 1987. In 1989 the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Federal Marketing Order No. 955
gave federal protection to the Vidalia onion and created the Vidalia Onion Committee, which supports both marketing and research
initiatives for Vidalia onions. Finally, in 1992 the state of Georgia became the owner of the Vidalia onion trademark.
Vidalia onion seed is planted in September at a high density for the production of transplants. It takes about eight weeks
to produce a good transplant.
The seedlings are pulled by hand, trimmed, and taken to the production field. Equipment is used to peg rows of holes in the
soil, and the transplants are placed in each hole by hand. About 80,000 plants per acre is a good average population. To produce
the mildest possible product, growers limit the use of sulfur fertilizer on the crop, as sulfur has been found to make these
onions more pungent.
At harvest time, when the necks of the onions get weak and begin to fall over, growers undercut the onions to allow them to
Onions mature from mid-April to mid-June. Most of the acreage is still harvested by hand, but mechanical harvesting is on
the rise because of the high costs and extensive regulations involving farm labor. Harvested onions are transported to the
packing facility for further drying, grading, and packaging. Onions to be stored are poured into bin boxes and placed in coolers.
Controlled atmospheric storage facilities allow onions to be stored for months past the fresh market season, and the adoption
of this technology led to a big increase in acreage in the mid-1990s.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century 14,500 acres of Vidalia onions were grown. Vidalia onions represent about 40
percent of the total national spring onion production and have an estimated value of about $90 million in annual gross sales.
George E. Boyhan and Reid L. Torrance, "Vidalia Onions: Sweet Onion Production in Southeastern Georgia," HortTechnology 12 (April-June 2002): 196-202.
Reid Larry Torrance, University of Georgia