Severe winter weather left its mark on Vidalia onion fields across Southeast Georgia. The damage is easy to spot, thanks to an innocent-looking bulb that pops up at the top of ruined onion plants.
Called a seed-stem, it serves as a "red flag" to harvest crews to leave it in the field for tractors to plow it back into the dirt. But some fields have so many stems, farmers will leave the entire crop.
Kevin Hendrix, of Hendrix Produce, said that is the case with one of his family's 50-plus acre plots.
"The yield in that field would be less than 5 percent, we'll just skip it completely," explained Hendrix, the current chairman of the Vidalia Onion Commission.
Cliff Riner, of the UGA Extension Service, estimates onion farmers have lost roughly 30 percent of the crop to seed stems.
"The plant grows in two stages. The onion that we see in the store is the first stage. Wet or cold weather can stress that plant into starting the second stage. Either one can do it, having both really sets it off," Riner explained.
He said February set a record for rainfall in that month and March was one of the coolest that anyone can remember. The conditions combined to trick the plant into its second stage, which is marked by a knot forming in the onion and the flowery bulb at the top of the taller-than-average stem.
The bulb helps harvest crews avoid the ruined plants when they cut and gather, so buyers never see the ruined onions. But customers may see fewer onions for sale in their local stores.
"The crop that's in the store is still good," Riner assured. "But if demand stays constant, we may run out sooner than usual. I'd get them while you can."