April is onion season in Georgia. Not just any onion either. I’m talking about the onions that only Georgia can claim – the Vidalia Onions.
Since I love the backroads and I love this onion, I threw my camera in the car and headed out to the city of Vidalia to check out the backstory of this famous vegetable. As I rolled into town, my first discovery was the Vidalia Onion Museum, which currently ranks at 4.5 stars on Trip Advisor. It was small but packed with informative displays, memorabilia and videos about their onion. The tour guide was excited and with genuine southern hospitality she guided me through the exhibits with a private tour.
So what’s this onion’s story?
The proper pronunciation is “vie + dale + yah”.
The Vidalia onion’s story began around 1931 when depression-era farmer, Moses Coleman, decided to plant onions as a winter crop to supplement his cotton and tobacco harvests. However, he unknowingly planted mail-ordered onion seeds that were sweet instead of the basic hot variety. The sales started slow, but he persevered and sold them for a good price by eating them like an apple for prospective buyers.
In 1949, the state of Georgia decided to build a farmers market and since Vidalia sat on a main highway in the crossroads of Savannah, Macon and Augusta, it was a logical location. Travelers would stop to purchase the seasonal onions, calling the local specialty “Vidalia Onions.” The name stuck and soon the sweet Vidalia onion was known throughout the state.
Piggly Wiggly Grocery Stores were headquartered in Vidalia. In the 1960’s, seeing a wonderful opportunity, the onions were added to the produce department of Piggly Wiggly stores across the south.
Success and popularity doesn’t come without a bit of drama. Bootleggers started packaging their onions as Vidalia Onions planning to take advantage of the name recognition and higher price. The Vidalia onion farmers realized they needed to protect their brand. In the 1980’s the farmers united as one voice seeking both state and federal protection of the growing region. The result was the “Vidalia Onion Act of 1986.”
The right to call an onion a Vidalia is heavily regulated. Only the short-day yellow granex onions, grown in 20 designated counties, can be sold as Vidalias. In order to protect the quality and keep farmers from rushing their crop to market, a committee sets the date that each years harvest can be sold. The Monday of the last full week of April is the date that begins the Vidalia onion marketing season.
The 2017 Vidalia Onion crop is ahead of schedule because of the mild temperatures this winter. As a result the onion will have an earlier market date of April 12.
In 1992 the State of Georgia declared the Vidalia Onion the state vegetable. Vidalia onions are a $150 million dollar industry harvesting 268 million pounds of onions on 11,200 acres of land.
It is scientifically proven that Vidalias are sweeter than other onion varieties. It is the low amount of sulfur in the soil of this region combined with a latitude that provides shorter days, mild winters and regular rainfall that create the sweet flavor.
Vidalias are planted and harvested by hand. They are started in seedbeds and once they become seedlings, they’re moved by hand into field rows where they’ll mature. The grassy onions grow over the winter with the onion bulb pushing up above the ground.
The UGA College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences maintains a 142 acre site called the Vidalia Onion and Vegetable Research Center (VOVRC) in Lyons, right outside Vidalia. Beginning in 1990, technology borrowed from the apple industry was adapted to begin the controlled atmosphere (CA) storage of Vidalia onions. Now, 125 million pounds of Vidalia onions can be put into CA storage for up to seven months, extending Vidalia onion sales into the fall holiday season.
At home, the key to preserving onions is to keep them cool and dry. It is ok to refrigerate the Vidalia. Wrap each onion in a paper towel and store in your crisper drawer. If your refrigerator space is limited you can try the “panty hose method.” Place onions in the legs of clean, sheer pantyhose and tie a knot above each whole onion. Hang the pantyhose in a cool, dry, and dark place, such as a pantry or closet. Simply cut above the knot when you want to use one!
Vidalias can be frozen whole or chopped, but freezing changes the texture and they should only be used for cooking.
This year the 40th annual Vidalia Onion festival will be held April 27-30. The culinary based festival is often ranked as one the top tourism events in the southeast. Cooking contests, onion eating, parades and beauty pageants combine with carnivals, concerts and arts. Visit http://www.vidaliaonionfestival.com for a full schedule of events.
Vidalia is about 2.5 hours from Fayetteville and a great detour off the interstate if you are headed to the Georgia coast. Take exit 84 off I-16 and head south on Highway 297 about 15 miles.
The McIntosh Chapter of the American Business Women’s Association holds an annual Vidalia onion sale as a fundraiser for scholarships. ABWA members recommend wrapping Vidalia onions in aluminum foil for long-term storage.