Bitterness in Sweet Onion Country

The area around Vidalia, Ga., is famous for its sweet onions. Technically, of course, they're not sweeter than other onions; it's just that a combination of onion variety (Granex, same as Texas, Imperial Valley and Maui sweets) and soil and climate produce an onion that is less pungent, so you can eat it raw without making your eyes water.

But what was for decades a small-town affair, with onions sold in only a half-dozen East Coast cities from the backs of flatbed trucks, has become big business. Last year's Vidalia onion crop was worth almost $90 million. And since the 20-county growing area was officially recognized in 1986, the amount of land devoted to onions has quadrupled to 16,000 acres.

That has caused some big-city squabbles. For one, some farmers say that the onion is being grown in areas that don't produce truly sweet onions. At the same time, some growers have been planting faster-ripening varieties other than Granex to cash in on higher early-season prices.

The most pointed conflict involves two of the original sweet onion growers, Bland Farms and Plantation Sweets, who plan to label their onions according to degree of "sweetness" (in truth, lack of pungency). Twenty other Vidalia onion farmers sued on the grounds that this might give consumers the impression that their onions were less sweet. A judge agreed, at least temporarily, and the plan was put on hold until a final decision can be reached.

Delbert Bland, pro-sticker owner of one of the original Vidalia farms, is sticking by his guns: "The bottom line is, I know what my onions are and what my cultural [agricultural] practices are," he told the industry newspaper the Packer, "and I'm not scared to guarantee my onions to be sweet to anyone at any time."

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