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Disastrous Vidalia onion crop could lead to $50 million loss

ALBANY, Ga. (AP) _ Temperature extremes and a fast-spreading fungal disease have killed about 60 percent of this year's crop of Georgia's famously sweet Vidalia onions.

Growers in southeastern Georgia have asked for federal disaster assistance for what they are calling their worst crop ever. The crop failure could cost farmers up to $50 million.

``My future is going to depend on this disaster assistance,'' said Kelly Folsom of Glennville, who harvested only 26 of his 94 acres. ``I hate to be in a position where I'm dependent on disaster relief, but that's what it's come down to. You can't destroy that much of a high-value crop and just overcome it.''

Some growers had near normal crops, while others lost entire fields.

Growers said consumers will still be able to find high-quality Vidalias, but fewer of them will be available. Millions of bad onions were either plowed under or eliminated at packing sheds.

Vidalia onions became popular in the late 1980s thanks to a marketing campaign that said you could ``eat 'em like an apple.'' Growers claim the low-sulfur soil and mild climate in the 20-county southeastern Georgia growing area make them one of the world's sweetest onions.

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.

About 60 percent of the crop has been lost, estimated Reid Torrance, county extension coordinator for Tattnall County.

``It is truly disastrous,'' he said. ``We have never in the history of this industry faced losses of this magnitude.''

The losses could force some farmers out of business, said Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin. ``You've got some that may not be growing onions next year _ may not be growing anything _ unless we get them some help,'' he said.

Gov. Roy Barnes sent a letter to the U.S. Agriculture Department earlier this month, requesting a disaster declaration.

Torrance said growers were hit by a combination of problems, including a cold snap in February that damaged some of the foliage, a fungus _ stemphyllium _ that ``literally ate the tops off the onions,'' and a week of unusually warm weather in April. Temperature changes can cause unwanted growth and other defects in onions.

Georgia's 132 registered growers planted 14,458 acres of Vidalias last November and December, which would normally be harvested between mid-April and early June. Because of the short crop, most of onions destined for supermarkets and produce stands have already been shipped, Torrance said.

``The quality is good,'' said Johnnie Kent, produce manager at the Publix supermarket in Albany. But ``if you don't want to get caught off-guard, you need to go ahead and get your onions now or in the next few weeks.''
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