Heading into Vidalia, Ga., the first thing you spot is the welcome sign, then below it, the distinct reminder that this is the sweet onion city.
In fact, signs touting this distinction are visible throughout the town, because the vegetablethe Vidalia onionis a source of great pride for Vidalia residents. For lasting proof, look no further than the water tower in the center of town, adorned with a drawing of the famous onion.
This is where, in 1931, a local farmer named Mose Coleman discovered the onions he had planted were sweet instead of hot, as hed intended. Sweet enough, in fact, to eat like an apple. Coleman knew hed found something special, but he didnt realize that his discovery would forever put the town of 12,000 on the map.
I dont know any other product that is better known than the Vidalia onion, says Patsy Douglas, executive director of the Vidalia Tourism Council. I am amazed when I do trade shows, with other cities and vendors promoting their products, how people will see the name Vidalia and just recognize the onion. Theyll want to know what products I have, if I have any onions, or if I have any onion recipes.
Martha Horne knows the towns onion is globally renowned. She owns the Country Lane in downtown Vidalia, which specializes in antiques, as well as onion products and paraphernalia. The store has shipped onion goods to several countries, including France, England, Venezuela and, most recently, six cases of an onion-tomato salad dressing to South Africa.
The sweet onions birth certainly is credited to Coleman, but Georgia gave it a boost by generating a little mass marketing. In the 1940s, the state built a Farmers Market in Vidaliabecause it was the juncture of several major highwaysand tourists buying produce there began to spread the word about the sweet onions, which they called Vidalias. Through the next several decades, the onion steadily grew in popularity, and in 1986, the state Legislature defined the 20-county production area as the only land from which growers could legally call their product the Vidalia onion. In 1990, the Legislature bestowed another honor and named the Vidalia onion Georgias official state vegetable.
Vidalias are bigger and flatter in the middle, not round and bulb-shaped like hot onions. Brian Stanley, an onion grower with his familys generations-old Stanley Farms, attributes the onions sweetness to the mild climate and the sulfur content of the areas loamy soil, which he says is better for the sweet onions than clay soil.
Clay has a tendency to hold a lot of fertilizer, which makes the onions hotter. Take this same onion and plant it in other parts of the world, and it is not nearly as sweet. It comes down to the actual soil.
Even with all the tests people came up with, Stanley says, this is the sweetest onion in the world.
This might be debated by growers in other parts of the country, such as those who produce the Walla Walla sweet onion in southeastern Washington and northeastern Oregon. But to Vidalia, its no contest.
Stanley Farms produces about 900 acres of onions. About 275 growers annually produce thousands of onion plants per acre on the 10,000 acres occupying the 20-county production area. And when the harvesting is done, the fun begins.
April 26-29 this year will mark the 24th annual Vidalia Onion Festival, an event celebrating the onion harvest. Over the long weekend, about 50,000 to 75,000 visitors are expected from all over the country to sample some onions, take part in the onion-eating contest, and enter the Vidalia Onion Cook-Offwhich has resulted in more than a few flavorful recipes. An air show, street dance, and 10K run round out the festivities.
But Vidalia is not content to rest on its onions. Some growers are experimenting with other vegetables to see what crops up. Nextthe Vidalia carrot.
Its sweet. And its different, Stanley says.