YARBROUGH COLUMN: Some sweet talk about the Vidalia onion

Published 9:30 am Tuesday, April 9, 2024

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Let’s face it. We’re a blessed people. Not only do we have the oldest state-chartered university in the nation with two recent National Football Championships and 27 Rhodes Scholars (but who’s counting?) and the greatest state song in the history of the world, “Georgia on my Mind,” as sung by Ray Charles Robinson, of Albany, Georgia, we are also home to the Sweet Vidalia Onion. Our cup runneth over.

If you aren’t from around these parts and may not understand the significance of the sweet Vidalia onion, let me enlighten you. Short form: There is nothing like it on this earth. It is wonderfully sweet-tasting. Yes, a sweet onion. You can eat it like an apple. And you can’t grow it anywhere else on earth but in Georgia and only in some 20 counties, including Toombs County whose largest city is, of course, Vidalia.

Folks over in Glennville will remind you that about half the annual crop comes from Tattnall County and that at one time it was referred to as the Glennville sweet onion, but everybody got together and agreed to call it the Vidalia onion. That’s the way we do things in this great state. If you try to grow a sweet onion elsewhere (good luck with that!), you cannot call it a “Vidalia” unless it was grown in the above-mentioned areas of Georgia. If you try to foist off a substitute on unsuspecting consumers, you will get a visit from the Georgia Department of Agriculture wherever you are. Federal Marketing Order No. 955 was established in 1989 to help reinforce Georgia state laws and in 1992, the Vidalia onion was trademarked by the state. In Georgia, we take our onions as seriously as Friday night football.

Excuse me for bringing a bit of theology into this discussion but as I have noted on several occasions, God likes Georgia a bunch. Look no further than how the Vidalia onion came to be. In 1931, a farmer named Mose Coleman discovered that the onions he had planted were not hot, as he expected. They were sweet. That is because this particular soil has a low amount of sulfur which gives the onions its sweet taste. It took a while to catch on, but soon Mose was selling the dickens out of his onions.

Other farmers, who had suffered through the Depression years followed suit and started producing their own sweet, mild onions. Thus was born the Vidalia onion. Today, they are planted on some 12,000 acres and are responsible for roughly $150 million in farm gate value (the market value minus selling cost.) Let’s hear it for Mose!

I mention all of this to say that the start of Vidalia onion season is almost here. On April 17, the sweet onions are set to ship to grocery stores in all 50 states and most of Canada. That’s according to Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tyler Harper and the Vidalia Onion Committee. But don’t tarry. Sweet Vidalia onions are available for a limited time each year between April through early September.

To celebrate this year’s Vidalia onion season, the Vidalia Onion Festival, scheduled April 25-28, will feature among other things, a rodeo and a performance by the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels. The Glennville Sweet Onion Festival, now in its 48th year, follows on May 11 with the annual Sweet Onion Run, a downtown parade and the crowning of Miss Georgia Sweet Onion, as well as a lot of other activities. That’s a lot of fuss to make over an onion. Not that others don’t try. For example, at the recently-concluded Sibuyasan Onion Festival in Bongabon (that’s in the Philippines, in case you are wondering), the big event was Farmers’ Day at the Agricultural Trading Center in Barangay Curva. That doesn’t sound nearly as exciting as a rodeo.

The Lions Club in Princeton, Texas, is hosting its 20th annual Onion Festival promoting the sweet Bermuda (sounds like an oxymoron) onion which they claim makes Princeton the Onion Capital of Texas. Their festival will feature a cornhole tournament. I’ll take the Blue Angels, thank you.

Not to be outdone, Weslaco, Texas, 500 miles south on the Mexican border just got through celebrating the state’s official onion, the 1015 (That’s because it is usually planted on October 15th) with – are you ready? – dancing horses. You can’t fault these folks for trying, bless their hearts. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But, the Vidalia onion is ours and ours alone. How sweet it is!