ALBANY, Ga. -- Chilly temperatures and plant diseases delayed the planting of Georgia's sweet Vidalia onion crop, but there's also been some good news about the ballyhooed bulbs.
Growers had the option of choosing from seven new varieties during the planting season, which ended with the new year.
"These are brand new in the marketplace," said Reid Torrance, the county Extension coordinator in southeastern Georgia's Tattnall County, where many of the state's Vidalias are grown. "That gives a total of 24 legal varieties. However, there are five that are no longer available, so there are only 19 varieties for planting."
It takes a special onion to meet the sweet Vidalia standards.
The new ones survived years of testing. They were grown experimentally, subjected to chemical analysis, poked and measured, and had to pass the ultimate test -- a panel of scientifically trained taste testers.
"If these Vidalia onions get any better, we're concerned about deciding who we're going to let have them," said Vidalia grower Delbert Bland, owner of Bland Farms in Tattnall County. "There won't be enough to go around."
University of Georgia scientists and crop specialists test about 30 onions a year at the 25-acre Vidalia Onion and Vegetable Research Center, straddling the line between Tattnall and Toombs counties in the heart of onion country.
Torrance said the industry's new standard is an onion known as the "Savannah Sweet." It replaced the "Sweet Vidalia," which had been used to set the standard for years.
Vidalia onions became popular in the late 1980s thanks to a marketing campaign that said you could "eat 'em like an apple." Vidalias represent about 10 percent of the U.S. onion market and are one of Georgia's most valuable crops, worth about $80 million a year.