An onion is just an onion, unless it grows in the sandy loam around Vidalia.
Then it is hailed as a sweet Vidalia, an onion that, its fans insist, can be eaten like an apple, cut without tears and digested without stomach growl. And Vidalia onion eaters supposedly don't need breath mints before kissing.
Almost everywhere except in Vidalia, farmers are suffering from falling prices and rising costs. But the onions have been sweet to this gutsy little town of 12,000 and salvation to farmers like Jerry Rollins, a former state wildlife officer. Onions keep gasoline in his pickup and food on his table.
"We've been real fortunate," said Rollins, beer in hand, steering his tractor across a freshly turned onion field. "We ain't ridin' in Cadillacs and Lincolns, but we ain't going hungry. It's the best cash crop we have."
Five years ago, New Brothers, Vidalia's biggest packing house, sacked $200,000 worth of onions in a tiny metal shack across the railroad tracks from its new plant. This year, the firm expects to sell $5 million worth. In August, its stock is going public to raise capital for expansion.
"The Lord is smiling on us," said sales manager Ronnie Smith, surrounded by migrant workers hefting sacks onto trucks bound for grocery stores from Washington, D.C., to Miami.
Harvested in May and June, with a $65 million bumper crop this year, the squat Georgia onions, little by little, have burst full-blown from cult status to onion-chic, rivaling fellow onions from Maui to Walla Walla. Nowadays, a Vidalia is to onions what Godiva is to chocolate: the caviar of onions.
At peak season, sweet Vidalias fetch from $10 to $26 per 50-pound sack. Such premium prices, however, give their growers something to weep about: illegal competition from ersatz Vidalias, such as hot Texas pretenders in counterfeit bags.
Vidalia growers want stiffer laws to keep imposter onions off the shelves. But, officials shrug that they are powerless to prosecute, except under a weak mislabeling law. The large price spread between Vidalias and other onions draws the bootleggers, according to Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin, who busted a Texas onion ring last year.
Acting on a tip, Irvin found Texas onions in Vidalia sacks at the Atlanta Farmers Market. He ate one. It burned. He slapped an embargo on the onions. The distributor, claiming they were the real thing, threatened to sue.
Irvin said, "I didn't fall off a turnip truck yesterday." The Texan confessed and paid a $1,000 fine, Irvin said.
To defend the honor of their onions, many local growers mark sacks with Chamber of Commerce "Yumion" insignias, an overall-clad onion that looks like a mutant Smurf, and the name and locale of the grower.
Still, bootlegging persists. One reason: Farmers can't agree on where to draw the line beyond which an onion could not be labeled a Vidalia. A local growers association wants a 35-mile radius from Vidalia, which is 100 miles west of Savannah, designated as official onion country. Stolen "Yumion" stickers alone have been selling for $2 on the black market.
But legislation to designate an official growing area died in the Georgia General Assembly this spring as lawmakers fought to get their counties on the list. The list grew until it included every county below the "gnat line," virtually the southern half of the state.
Another sour note for Vidalias: Their high sugar content causes them to spoil unless stored in a cool, dry place. But fashion seems to have provided an ideal storage solution, panty hose with knots tied around each onion to keep them apart.
Vidalias are the same Yellow Granex type-F hybrid onion that is planted from California to Texas. But something happens to the common onion when it is planted in the low-sulfur soil here; locals credit the Vidalia soil with giving the onions their sweetness and succulence.
That something is said to taper off about 35 miles outside Vidalia.
The Vidalia onion boom has its roots in Depression days, in 1931, when cotton was selling for a penny a pound and a desperate Moses Coleman, 82, began growing onions as a novelty cash crop and selling them from his model-T for $3.50 a sack.
But only in recent years has the onion put Vidalia on the map. Letters pour in to the Chamber of Commerce. Director Dick Walden, an unabashed promoter, likes to talk about one from an elderly woman with failing eyesight who claims she was able to thread needles after eating Vidalias.
"It has given our community an identity," he said. "I walk into a room and no one knows me from Adam's yard dog--until I say, 'I'm from Vidalia, Ga.' "
For two years now, Vidalia has trounced rival sweet onions from Walla Walla, Wash., in a blind taste-off. Savoring that victory, Sen. Sam Nunn, (D-Ga.) said, "Herschel Walker may be gone, but the Vidalia onion remains undefeated."