Farmers Do a Lot of Griping,
Despite All Those Rolexes
By GREG JAFFE
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREETJOURNAL
October 28, 1998
VIDALIA, Ga. -- It's not all sweetness and light down here where they grow
the famous onions. Competition among the farmers has always been cutthroat.
But when David Burrell happened on the scene, things got really ugly.
It seems that though Vidalia onions are celebrated for their sweet, mild
flavor -- that's the big selling point -- some of them actually are hot and
sour, pretty much like ordinary onions you won't find in mail-order catalog=
at premium prices.
Mr. Burrell, a 42-year-old inventor, devised a way to test onions for
sweetness. He figured that if he could guarantee the sweetness of a bag of
Vidalias, onion buyers would be willing to pay maybe four cents extra per
onion. For a thousand-acre farm, that could work out to $500,000 in added
Supermarkets and specialty food stores, including Publix Super Markets, Foo=
Lion Inc., Harris Teeter (a division of Ruddick Corp.) and Wegmans Food
Markets Inc. lined up to buy onions that Mr. Burrell certified sweet.
"I believed what we were doing would change the industry," Mr. Burrell says
of his test. "I still believe one day it may."
For now, though, Mr. Burrell is a pariah in Vidalia -- the "Sweet Onion
City." Dozens of farmers here claim he is a threat to the industry and woul=
like to see him run out of town. He has been sued by 22 growers and
excoriated at two packed town meetings.
"Ninety-five percent of the farmers around here curse the ground I walk on,=
Mr. Burrell acknowledges as his red pickup truck with a "Real Men Love
Jesus" bumper sticker rattles down a dusty dirt road. "A lot of times I sit
up at night and think, 'Why me, Lord? What did I do to deserve this?'=A0"
The Tenor of the Town
When the onion season gets going, the tenor of the town changes. Says Geral=
Dasher, one of the region's largest farmers: "People start lying to one
another. They try to steal each other's customers. It's like a war zone." A
few years ago, the region's largest farmer hired a private investigator to
spy on competitors he suspected of re-bagging cheaper Texas onions as
The cause of all this fighting is an ordinary Bermuda onion that, cultivate=
most everywhere else, turns out hot, with an unpleasant aftertaste. In the
pale loam of southeast Georgia, however, the same onion is pulled from the
ground juicy and sweet. Scientists say Vidalia's mild, wet winters and its
low-sulfur soil account for the unique flavor.
Vidalia onions, a local favorite, made the big time nationally in the late
1970s when Georgia-boy-turned-president Jimmy Carter started sending them
out as gifts. Soon they were appearing in newspaper columns and on the
shelves of fancy markets in Georgetown.
Today, thanks to tireless marketing and new storage techniques, the Vidalia
onion business is booming. In 1997, growers planted 16,200 acres of onions,
up from 8,700 acres just five years earlier. Thanks to the onion, farmers
here sport Rolexes and drive new Mercedes-Benz sedans.
Delbert Bland, the farmer who had hired the spy, presides over a $30 millio=
Vidalia onion empire. Last year he planted 2,600 acres of onions and sold
100,000 copies of the "Vidalia Onion Lovers Cookbook." He's also big in the
frozen onion-ring business.
On a cool fall morning, buyers from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and QVC Inc. call
Mr. Bland to check on their orders. The buyer from Wal-Mart's Sam's Club
division is searching for more Vidalia Blooming Onion Cutter kits, which
include a compact onion slicer and cooking sauce that Mr. Bland began
selling earlier this year. In the next room, operators man about 25
telephones to take Christmas orders for Vidalia onion relishes, salad
dressings, onion rings and cookbooks.
"This business is as wide open as she'll go," Mr. Bland says.
An Opportunity in the Onion
Mr. Burrell, who moved to Vidalia from Florida 2 1/2 years ago, saw a
similar opportunity in the onion.
Mr. Burrell was standing in the field of R.T. Stanley, a prominent grower,
when the idea for the onion test hit him like a 50-pound sack of Vidalia
sweets. Mr. Stanley had been complaining that soil variations were causing
uneven sweetness in the onions. Some were actually quite hot. He was worrie=
about Vidalia's good name. "We're killing the goose that laid the golden eg=
with all these hot onions," Mr. Stanley said.
An onion's hot taste comes from sulfur, which overwhelms the sugar. Digging
through horticultural journals at the University of Georgia, Mr. Burrell
learned that a professor had developed a device that could measure the
sulfur content of an onion. Mr. Burrell married that test with Global
Positioning Satellite technology, with which he could map out a farmer's
acreage into distinct 60-foot by 60-foot squares. By pulling 10 samples fro=
each of those squares, he could predict the sulfur content of the other
onions within the block and relay that information back to the farmers.
Mr. Burrell's idea worked. "It's not a perfect test," says William Randle,
an onion specialist at the University of Georgia. "But it is very, very
Last winter, Mr. Burrell signed up Mr. Bland and Ronnie Collins, another bi=
grower, to a testing contract. He hired his former exterminator and the
exterminator's unemployed son to peel and core onion bulbs. A local
Christian-rock guitarist named Houston Hodges donned a large backpack with
an antenna sticking out of it to tune in the GPS technology and help Mr.
Burrell map the farmers' fields. Mr. Burrell's wife, Laura, quit her job as
a teacher's assistant to help run the sulfur-measuring spectrophotometer.
By early March, Mr. Burrell had sunk about $50,000 of his own money into a
lab located in an old garment factory. He worked 18 hours a day testing
onions. One by one, the pale orbs were dropped into a large silver pneumati=
press. Then he ran the onion juice through a spectrophotometer.
"I was ecstatic," Mr. Burrell says. "The test was working."
Mr. Burrell and the two farmers had already begun calling buyers to let the=
know that the tested onions were coming. Each bushel would bear Mr.
Burrell's stamp of approval, a fluorescent pink beaker with the words
"Certified Extra Sweet by Vidalia Labs Inc." written beneath it.
Articles about the testing program also appeared in the industry's two
largest trade publications -- "The Produce News" and "The Packer."
Farmers for the most part tried to ignore Mr. Burrell. But when supermarket
buyers began lining up for the more expensive onions in late April, farmers
quickly became alarmed. Mr. Bland says he got orders from Harris Teeter,
Publix and Kroger, which hadn't bought onions from him before. Several
buyers began demanding only tested onions.
"We had been getting complaints about hot onions," says Mark Hilton, who
heads the produce department for the Harris Teeter supermarket chain in
Charlotte, N.C. "This test was a way to validate sweetness and tell our
customers that we were going out of the way to make sure they were getting
the best onions."
Within days of the first testing, about 150 furious local growers met to
complain. "I was good enough for Harris Teeter for 20 years," Mr. Dasher
recalls saying at the town meeting. "Then all of a sudden these guys droppe=
me for a crazy gimmick. I didn't sell them a single onion."
Another farmer, Wayne Easterling, complained that he had lost $225,000 when
his long-term clients abandoned him for tested onions and he couldn't find =
market for his crop.
As the crowd grew angrier, Mr. Burrell buried his head in his hands. He
scribbled the words "What a mess" in his day planner.
After just seven days of official onion testing, Mr. Burrell's company was
sued by the 22 growers, and a state judge issued a temporary restraining
order, which kept Mr. Burrell from testing any more onions for the remainde=
of the twelve-week harvest season.
Meanwhile, Tommy Irvin, the state agriculture commissioner, promised that h=
would do whatever it takes to prevent Mr. Burrell from testing onions again=
"A sweet Vidalia onion is a sweet Vidalia onion," Mr. Irvin says. "We don't
need a test to tell us what we already know for a fact."
The farmers suing Mr. Burrell don't dispute the accuracy of his test.
Instead they maintain the test was creating confusion in the marketplace
over what was a true Vidalia onion. In 1988, the Georgia Legislature
mandated that only those onions grown within a 20-county region surrounding
Vidalia and certified by the state could represent themselves as "Vidalia"
"People were beginning to think that to be a true Vidalia onion it has to b=
tested and certified by Mr. Burrell," says Brett Merrill, an attorney for
the farmers. "The state of Georgia is the only entity that can certify a
Mr. Burrell says he is now about $75,000 in debt. His roof leaks, and when
he isn't trying to sell another of his inventions, he spends his days
studying Georgia law and suggesting new lines of defense to his lawyers. He
expects his case to be tried soon, though the judge has already suggested
that the two sides bury the hatchet for the sake of the Vidalia onion.