The Vidalia sweet onion, declared the official state vegetable in 1990, 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 Great 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.
In the 1940s the state of Georgia built a farmers' market in Vidalia to help the growers sell their produce. 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 onions.
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
In response 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. 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 dry down.
By 2010 about 12,000 acres were planted annually, with an average annual farmgate value of $150 million. Vidalia onions represent about 40 percent of the total national spring onion production.
Media Gallery: Vidalia Onions