The story of the Vidalia onion - Georgia’s official state vegetable - begins in 1931. In the late spring of that year a Toombs County farmer named Moses Coleman made a surprising discovery; the onions he had grown were not hot (as most onions are), but mild and sweet. Once word got out about the new onions - which Coleman was able to sell for a very good price in those Depression-era days - other farmers in the region started growing sweet onion too. In the 1940s, before the interstate highway system, Vidalia was at the crossroads of some of the busiest roads in south Georgia. So the state built a Farmers Market there to help promote and sell the onions. Customers started referring to them as ‘Vidalia onions” and the name stuck. Soon, Vidalia onions started appearing on regional grocery store shelves.
Production of Vidalia onions grew relatively slowly, yet steadily, through the 1950s and 1960s, until approximately 600 acres were devoted to growing them - each acre produces around 80,000 plants on the average. In the 1970s Vidalia onions began to be marketed on a national scale. Local farmers banded together into cooperatives to assist in this marketing, and to work to prevent other onions from being sold as Vidalias. In 1986, the state of Georgia General Assembly passed the Vidalia Onion Act, which designated the twenty counties surrounding Toombs County as the official growing area for Vidalia onions, with the Georgia Department of Agriculture in charge of protecting and promoting that name. In 1989, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued an order giving federal protection to the Vidalia onions, and also created the Vidalia Onion Committee to support both the of marketing and research on Vidalia onions. Finally, in 1990 the General Assembly passed legislation declaring the Vidalia onion as the official state vegetable, and in 1992 the state of Georgia became the official owner of the (now famous) Vidalia onion trademark.
For more on Vidalia Onions, see the New Georgia Encyclopedia.
Beginning in the early 1990s, Vidalia onion growers borrowed some technology from Georgia’s apple industry called controlled atmosphere (CA) storage. CA storage allows for Vidalia onions to be kept fresh for up to seven months, greatly expanding the length of time they can be sold. Approximately 125 million pounds of Vidalia onions are put into CA storage each year. Today, well over 14,00 acres of Vidalia onions are grown annually, which constitutes about forty percent of the nation’s spring onion production. Vidalia onions produce about ninety million dollars in annual sales, making them a vital part of Georgia’s economy.