Vidalia, You Sweet Thing!

Marketing is survival for growers in 20 Georgia counties.

Published on: May 19, 2011

Word is Vidalias only make you cry when they're gone.

What's sweeter for growers of this specialty onion is that a niche market created by chance has been pushed to profitable heights with skillful marketing.

Robert Dasher - whose father was one of six original growers – turns away customers and sits down at the peak of Vidalia harvest to tell the story of how this sweet onion got its name and earned its premium price.

It started, Dasher says, with Gerald H. Achenbach, then-president for Piggly Wiggly Southern, which had a warehouse in Vidalia, Ga. Achenbach liked to stop in the Glennville area to buy onions on his way to the beach – and both them in the 25- or 50-pound bags then available and shared them with friends and co-workers. One of those co-workers wanted to know why the onions weren't being offered in the stores.

To get such an enterprise started, the first thing Achenbach had to do was get six growers to commit to 10 acres each.

"At that time the whole farm was four or five acres," Dasher points out. "They agreed and he was fair to them. Jerry was good to them, really."

Achenbach then had bags printed that read "Vidalia Sweet Onions – Grown for Piggly Wiggly Southern".

If that was the rock that caused an avalanche, the marketing history would be short, but those Auchenbach simply was the catalyst. From there, growers took over.

The next step was to get Kroger in Nashville, Tenn., to buy their product. They finally agreed to one load.

"They sold that first load, then got another," Dasher recalls. Then he snaps his fingers again and again and again. "It was just another load and another load after that."

The Atlanta division of Kroger snapped up the onions next, which is when Dasher believes the name really started to spread. Other food chains joined the trend afterward, but Dasher is particularly loyal to Piggly Wiggly and Kroger as a result of that early – and continued – support.

"Before Vidalia even became a name, we called them Royal Onions," Dasher recalls. "It didn't even say 'sweet'. You could catch a year when there weren't any onions from Texas or anywhere else and you might be able to sell yours. You might."

Eventually, growers in the area moved to protect the name. In 1986, Georgia's state legislature gave the Vidalia onion legal status and defined the 20-county production area. In 1989, producers established Federal Marketing Order No. 955 for the crop. The U.S. Department of Agriculture created the Vidalia Onion Committee and extended the definition of a Vidalia onion to the federal level. A year later, the Vidalia was named the official vegetable of Georgia.

Among other things, the state and federal regulations demand a certain quality before an onion can be marked with a Vidalia sticker.

Such protection is necessary, grower Delbert Bland says, because onion isn't necessarily a staple in every kitchen.

"I like the challenge of selling something somebody doesn't think they need for a price they don't think they should pay," Bland says. "We don't necessarily have a market for this product. We had to create it and now we have to take care of it."

Walk with us through this spring's Vidalia onion harvest.

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