Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Onions Duel for Markets St. Augustine Sweet Onions Compete with Other Sweet Onions Grown in Georgia, California, New Mexico, Texas and Washington

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Onions Duel for Markets St. Augustine Sweet Onions Compete with Other Sweet Onions Grown in Georgia, California, New Mexico, Texas and Washington

Article excerpt

ST. AUGUSTINE -- A sweet Florida onion, grown by farmers in St. Johns and Putnam counties, will be muscled off area store shelves this week by a Georgia cousin.

St. Augustine Sweets, an onion to rival the mighty Vidalia, is being planted by fewer growers and on less land than it was in 1994 when the onion first went to market. This week, Publix supermarkets, among others, will replace the Sweets with the Vidalia, which has more national marketing behind it.

"It's a good onion, but it hasn't had the press that the Vidalia has," said Dennis Cole, produce director and buyer for the 26-store Fresh Market chain based in North Carolina. "When they [Vidalias] hit the market, all others kind of take a backseat."

Austin Tilton, director of the University of Florida's Cooperative Extension Service office in Putnam County, said that a few years ago St. Augustine Sweets were being grown by nine farmers in St. Johns and Putnam counties on about 100 acres of land. Now, there are three growers planting the onions on about 35 acres. Area growers harvested about 700,000 pounds of the sweet onions this year with a market value of $200,000

Despite claims of better South Georgia soil in the 20 counties where Vidalias are harvested, Tilton said Vidalia growers don't have any intrinsic advantage.

"Vidalia has such good name recognition, plus they've got storage and can provide product throughout the year," he said. "If you built the storage, you could do the same thing here."

And while storage is an advantage, fresh is still best.

That's what growers such as Richard Jones and father and son farmers Tom and Jerry Beach say gives them an opening. Because they can plant a little earlier than Georgia growers, they can harvest a little earlier, giving them a two- or three-week window to offer fresh onions.

What they don't sell this week, they won't, they said. …

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