VIDALIA, Ga. — Like the rush to be the first to get bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau to Paris or an Alaska Copper River king salmon to Seattle, the pressure to sell the first Vidalia onions of spring is intense. The identity of this town rests on the squat, sweet onion. These days, as the first of the Vidalias are pulled from the sandy soil, the green tops farmers call quills cover nearly every field.
Mostly, Vidalias mean money in this corner of southern Georgia. The crop brings in about $150 million a year to legally registered growers in the 20 counties that make up the official Vidalia growing region.
But there is trouble in the onion fields. Three Vidalia growers took the state to court last year. Instead of shipping out their onions on April 21, a date set by the state for this year as a way to protect the Vidalia brand and to keep the playing field level, the growers wanted to send out some onions early.
Nature, they said, not the law, should dictate when to ship onions. Eaters ultimately decide what makes a good onion, and besides, there’s money to be made selling onions early.
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“Definitely the customer base is wanting sweet onions,” Delbert Bland, who brought the suit and is the largest grower of sweet onions in the country, told the produce industry news organization AndNowUKnow. “The demand for onions in general all over the country is extremely high right now.”
Armed with letters from grocery-store executives who had complained about early-crop onions that went bad too quickly or didn’t taste all that sweet, the Georgia agriculture commissioner, Gary Black, pushed back. There would be no early shipments.
In March, a Fulton County Superior Court judge agreed with the growers. Black, the judge said, was exceeding his legal authority. Black, citing his responsibility to protect the Vidalia trademark, appealed.
However, Bland, who grows onions on roughly 3,000 acres in southeast Georgia, jumped the gun April 16 and began shipping truckloads of onions from his farm.
“Customers are going to get good sweet, Vidalia onions and get them before next week,” Bland said.
His decision is somewhat of a gamble. A judge in Bland’s home turf of Tattnall County had refused to block the agriculture commissioner from enforcing the new onion regulation. But Bland’s attorneys say the judge’s written order contains language supporting their position that the commissioner would violate the original Atlanta judge’s order if he tries to sanction Bland for shipping onions a few days early.
Farmers who violate state laws and regulations governing how Vidalia onions are grown and marketed can be fined up to $5,000 per box or bag of onions. They can also lose the license allowing them to sell onions under the Vidalia brand, which is a state trademark.
While an official start date for shipping is nothing new, in the past farmers have been allowed to send onions to market early if the crop receives a U.S. 1 grade from federal inspectors. The new packing regulation aims to essentially end that practice.
Bland said a state agriculture official was at his farm April 16 to observe shipments being prepared. He said the official told him that he would face no immediate sanctions.
“He told me they were not going to do anything until after the appeal,” Bland said.
Walla Walla sweets
The Vidalia onion is actually a hybrid that came from Texas, a state whose own sweet onion is a constant competitor. It’s rounder than the Vidalia and comes to market about a month earlier.
In Hawaii and parts of the West Coast, many will argue for the superiority of the Maui sweet, a small crop grown with a seed similar to the Vidalia and one that is pulled in May. Others believe the Walla Walla sweet, a big, round onion with Italian roots brought over from Corsica, France, that grows on about 600 acres in Eastern Washington and parts of Oregon, is more complex in flavor than the Vidalia.
But here, talk that the Walla Walla could be superior is politely dismissed.
“It’s not a bad onion, and you wouldn’t mind eating one, but if you’re picking out one you want to feed to guests, there’s no comparison,” said Cliff Riner, the Vidalia onion coordinator for the University of Georgia, who runs a research facility.
What makes the best sweet onion is largely subjective. All sweet onions hit similar levels on the Brix sweetness scale. In fact, standard yellow onions aren’t that different on the scale. But sweet onions have low levels of pyruvic acid, which makes an onion taste hot and a cook’s eyes tear. The low level of sulfur in the soil around here, coupled with the right mix of sand and weather, makes the Vidalia special, growers say.
The first farmers who grew onions here in the 1930s were surprised to find that they were sweet. In the 1940s, when the state built a farmers market here, travelers heading north and south in the days before the Interstate would stop to buy bags of them in May and June, which were the only months they were available.
A grocery executive who also happened to be a farmer began selling them in Piggly Wiggly stores by the 1950s, their arrival each spring an ode to seasonality and regionalism.
Sign of spring
It is a rare native Southerner who doesn’t consider the first Vidalias a sure sign of spring. And almost everyone will offer a recipe, though it is often essentially the same one. Cut a cone from the top of a whole, peeled onion and fill the cavity with butter. Add salt and pepper, wrap it in foil and roast it at 350 degrees for 45 minutes to an hour. People get fancy and tuck in a bouillon cube or add a few drops of Worcestershire to create something like a distant cousin to French onion soup. Others wrap bacon around the buttered onion and cook it on a grill, a twist that developed a fan base after country singer Trisha Yearwood put it in a cookbook in 2008.
By the 1970s, the onion’s promotional machine was in full effect. An April festival began. Young women competed in the Miss Vidalia pageant. President Carter’s White House would send out bags of Vidalias as gifts.
Growers began to plant earlier and found ways to store the delicate onions longer, stretching the season. There were copycats, too. Vidalia labels were being slapped on bootleg onions from Texas. So growers pushed for a federal designation similar to one that helps Florida citrus.
That led to the state Vidalia Onion Act, passed in 1986, which gave the Agriculture Department control of the Vidalia trademark. By 1990, it was declared the state vegetable, and by 2010, marketing had gotten so advanced that even a “Shrek” movie had a promotional Vidalia tie-in.
The local-food movement has helped the Vidalia as well. Chefs began to seek out the youngest spring Vidalias, called salad onions, and put them on their menus well before the main crop arrived in supermarkets. The baby Vidalias, with bulbs the size of a small egg and their green tops intact, are exempt from early shipping rules and show up alongside hyperlocal dishes like catfish sausage at Hugh Acheson’s restaurant Empire State South.
But now, the game is changing again. Vidalia growers import sweet onions from Peru and Mexico and pack them in Vidalia so they can sell onions year round. And they want to plant Vidalias in Georgia earlier and earlier, all of which, true Vidalia fans say, is diluting the brand.
Johnny White, the director of sales at Hendrix Produce, said, “We don’t want to shoot Santa Claus here.”
SOUTHERN-FRIED SWEET ONION RINGS
Makes 4 servings
1 to 2 quarts peanut or other frying oil, such as canola
1½ cups all-purpose flour
1½ cups finely ground cornmeal
½ cup cornstarch
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 cup buttermilk
2 large Vidalia or other sweet onions, sliced ¼-inch thick
1. Heat oil in a large heavy pot. It should be at least 3 inches deep, but more is better.
2. In a wide shallow bowl, whisk together flour, cornmeal, cornstarch and cayenne. In a second bowl, beat egg and buttermilk.
3. Separate onion slices into rings. Working in batches, lightly toss the rings in the flour mixture, then dip into the buttermilk mixture. Allow most of the liquid to drip off, then toss again in the flour mixture. Shake off as much flour as possible and place the rings into the hot oil.
4. Fry for two to three minutes or until golden brown, moving the rings around a bit in the oil to keep them separated.
5. Put the onion rings onto a plate or bowl lined with paper towel and salt. Repeat until the onions are done.
—Information from The Associated Press is included.