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Vidalia onion growers celebrate success, look to future

Vidalia onion growers celebrate success, look to future

Georgia’s Vidalia onion growers gathered recently to celebrate the successes of 2010 and to honor the grower of the year and a hall of fame entry.

The theme of the 2011 annual Vidalia onion industry banquet was baseball, as in, "What a Team When We All Play Together."

Vidalia Onion Committee (VOC) Executive Director Wendy Brannen explains that 2010 was one of the most exciting marketing years ever — a "home run" — for the famous sweet onion. That, the onion marketer says, is in large part because everyone along the supply chain, starting with the growers and packers, then their sales teams, packaging vendors, and others involved, on up to Vidalia's retail partners, participated in the 2010 industry campaign.

Brannen attributes pride in that success to a record crowd, which topped 250 people, at this year's event. Among those attending were the new 2011 VOC executive committee members: Aries Haygood, M&T Farms, Lyons, Ga, Chairman; Michael Hively, Bland Farms, LLC, Glennville, Ga, Vice-Chairman; and public member Myrtle Jones of Toombs County Ag South Farm Credit, Secretary-Treasurer.

The banquet was both a celebration of the sweet onion team's "hitting it out of the park" marketing-wise in 2010 and an optimistic look ahead to the new 2011 marketing plan. It was also the time when Team Vidalia recognized their MVPs: At the industry celebration, the VOC announced the 2010 award recipient for Grower of the Year and its latest Hall of Fame inductee, Delwin Dowdy of Dowdy Farms, Reidsville, Ga., whose wife Mary accepted the posthumous award for her late husband.

Grower of the year

Awarded Grower of the Year was Delbert Bland of Bland Farms, LLC, Glennville, Ga. "If you ain't the lead dog, the scenery never changes," is the motto Bland embraced in 1982 when he and his late father Raymond D. Bland co-founded Bland Farms in Glennville. Bland says that philosophy continues to guide the daily operations of Bland Farms today, and the scenery at Bland Farm changes frequently.

The father-son duo began growing Vidalia onions on five acres in 1982. Twenty-eight years later, Bland Farms plants over 1,700 acres of the sweet delicacy and markets an additional 2,000 acres for Vidalia growers annually.

In 2008, Bland Farms opened Bland Distribution Services (BDS) in Donna, Texas, a cross-docking and packing facility on the border of Mexico.

During the 2009 year, Bland Farms continued its historical pattern of growth and expansion with the purchase of Zappala Farms, the Empire Sweets Brand, and the construction of Bellville Agri-Solutions, an agricultural fertilizer, chemical, and services facility located in Bellville, Ga. With 92 employees, Bland Farms is the largest grower, packer, and shipper of Vidalia onions and has the largest controlled-environment storage capacity in the sweet onion industry.

Domestic and international production operations reach far beyond Georgia into Utah, Pennsylvania, New York, Idaho, California, Texas, Mexico, Ecuador, Oregon, and Peru, with Bland Farms shipping sweet onions to retailers 52 weeks of the year.

In 2008, the Georgia Senate honored Bland with a resolution in recognition of commitment of time, talents, and energy towards the betterment of his community and state.

Most recently, Bland Farms was named one of the fastest growing privately held companies in America by Inc. Magazine in 2009. Each week Bland Farms supplies 4,000 pounds of sweet onions to America's Second Harvest of Coastal Georgia Food Bank whose mission is to feed hungry people and strengthen communities in the food bank's 21-county service area.

Bland Farms also has a three-year sponsorship agreement with St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital, and this year, two Raymond D. Bland Agricultural Scholarships will be awarded to high school seniors in the Glennville, Ga. area who plan to pursue post-secondary studies in agriculture or agriculture-related fields.

Most recently, Bland Farms has joined The Breast Cancer Research Foundation in the fight against breast cancer. And, 2011 marks the first year of Bland Farms' corporate sponsorship of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

Bland cites his belief in the Lord as sustaining him through the most difficult times. He is joined in the business by his wife Sandra, and children Landis, Troy and Courtney.

The 2010 Hall of Fame award went to Delwin Dowdy of Dowdy Farms, Reidsville, Ga. Presenting the award was Reid Torrance, Tattnall County Extension Service and Area Onion Manager, who said, "This award goes to someone who was a very dear friend of mine. He taught me a great deal about onion production and the onion business. And he taught many of you as well."

Delwin Dowdy is remembered as always being willing to share his knowledge with other growers. He assisted many of them when they first started growing onions going back as much as 30 years ago. Many sought his input regularly, wanting to know his opinion of the season's crop, managing resources, packing quality product and developing infrastructure.

Strategic marketer

Dowdy was known not only as a good grower and for packing the very best quality product, but also he was revered as a strategic marketer and a wizard of financial management. His wife Mary routinely said, "Everything he touches turns to gold."

That statement seemed true because Dowdy had an eye for an opportunity and a keen mind for business. He applied that ability to his onion operation daily.

Other traits he possessed included an eye for detail. Said Torrance, "He spent more time looking at a field of onions than anyone I know. He taught me, as a young county agent, to look closer, and closer still. This benefitted me throughout my career in troubleshooting problems in fields."

Dowdy also had a good recollection of previous seasons, remembering small details. Farmers report, "We may recall the Super Bowl freeze, but he would remember how many days it was below X temperature, how long the soil remained frozen and other details. He would relate past seasons to the current one in an attempt to predict what we might expect."

Because of Dowdy's expertise and commitment to detail, the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension service often utilized his farm for research projects and field days. He had a great willingness to cooperate with these endeavors.

Dowdy passed away two years ago in January, 2009 at the age of 69. Those in the industry often report they wish he were here today to confide in. His depth of knowledge about the onion business was vast. And, as Torrance recalled, "You can't help but grin when you think about Delwin kicked back in his office chair with his arm hanging over his head and toothpick dangling from his mouth."

He was considered a friend to all. He was a resource and an asset to many and a true pioneer in the onion industry.

More information about the Vidalia onion industry may be obtained at

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