South Carolina, which grows more peaches than the Peach State next door, might be putting a dent in another famous Georgia product soon – sweet onions.
Dozens of farmers joined leaders of the S.C. Department of Agriculture on Friday to start a publicity campaign for what they hope can expand from a new niche crop into another sweet source of profit from the fields.
Sweet onions aren’t a big deal here yet. South Carolina farmers have planted a little more than 60 acres this year, compared to about 14,000 acres of sweet onions in the Vidalia region of Georgia.
Palmetto Sweet Green Onions: "Eat one of these, and you’ll never want another Vidalia onion as long as you live," says Rep. Harry Ott, D-Calhoun, the only full-time farmer in the S.C. Legislature.
"We’re not trying to compete with Vidalia," said Martin Eubanks, director of marketing for the S.C. Department of Agriculture. On a broad scale, "we’re not going to be able to compete with 14,000 acres."
But others at the news conference apparently didn’t get that memo.
"Eat one of these, and you’ll never want another Vidalia onion as long as you live," said Sen. Harry Ott, D-Calhoun, the only full-time farmer in the S.C. Legislature.
Chris Rawl planted 6 acres of sweet onions this season on his family’s Lexington County farm, which hosted Friday’s gathering. They were the first in this soil since 2002, when Rawl ended a 10-year experiment with sweet onions that he believes was killed by marketing – or lack thereof.
"I’d get them to the market and people would ask, ‘Are they Vidalias?’ I’d say no, and they’d just walk," Rawl said.
But he insists South Carolina-grown onions taste just as sweet as Vidalias. "It’s not the soil, it’s not the climate," Rawl said. "Vidalia onions are just a fad, a marketing niche the Vidalia growers created."
Vidalia onions, by Georgia law, are grown only in 20 counties in that state. Growers there claim sulfur in the soil contributes to the onions’ unique flavor. Sales of Vidalia onions are estimated at $50 million annually.
Other famous sweet onion varieties are grown in Texas, New Mexico, Nevada and Hawaii.
South Carolina farmers have grown onions commercially for decades. Lexington County is one of the nation’s leaders in production of green onions, the more tart variety that has been grown at the Rawl farm since the 1940s. But sweet onions have been grown only occasionally in these parts, mainly because they didn’t sell as well as green onions, Rawl said.
"If you can’t sell them, they aren’t worth a dime," Rawl said.
Calhoun County farmers planted a few acres of sweet onion last year and convinced other farmers in Lexington, Orangeburg, Bamberg and Barnwell counties to join them in the effort this year. The timing seemed right, Eubanks said, because of the growth of the local foods movement.
"Consumer demand in South Carolina for local products continues to grow, so opportunities for farmers grow," Eubanks said.
The potential is high enough that there’s a trademark battle brewing over the name Charleston Sweet. The two packing houses in South Carolina handling sweet onions will market them as Palmetto Sweet and Edisto River Sweet.
Sweet onions are planted in November and harvested in late April through early June. Some fresh from the fields have begun showing up at roadside markets with the green tops still on them. Dried sweet onions should begin showing up in local stores in the next week to 10 days, Eubanks said.
They’ll have stickers on them declaring them "S.C. Grown," as opposed to the Vidalia onions that will begin flooding the state about the same time.
Eubanks hopes local shoppers will think of the high quality of the state’s peaches, strawberries, cantaloupes and watermelons and give the new onions a chance.
"We’re known for other sweet products, so why not sweet onions?" he said. "If you’ll buy it with your heart the first time because it’s local, I’m convinced you’ll come back for the quality and the flavor."