Season 2, Episode 08

One Sweet Circle

Return to Episode: One Sweet Circle

Donna Sanders headshot and byline.

Spring and Summer time in Georgia! What can be more beautiful? In the yards you may spot Azaleas in a ton of brilliant colors or maybe Hyacinth, Tulips, Spanish Bluebell, Irises and Corn Flowers. Corn Flowers have an interesting history – called bachelor’s buttons because they last so long they are used as boutonnieres for those beautiful Spring and Summer weddings.

Let’s talk trees. You can see Flowering Dogwood, American Hollies and Cherry Blossoms. Cherry Blossoms are so abundant and popular there are actually yearly Cherry Blossoms festivals in Brookhaven and Macon, GA. Okay, enough with our botany lesson.

George Taber Azalea

George Taber Azalea, Credit: Jud McCranie

Cherry tree blossoming

But, the most important thing that happens is the beginning of Vidalia Onion season. Yes, that special onion that is only available between April and August! What exactly is a Vidalia onion? It’s a sweet, flattish onion with a mild flavor. You can tell one by just looking at it. The onion is globe shaped instead of round. How about a couple of fun facts? Vidalia onions have more sugar in them than other onions, which makes them great for caramelizing – good to know if you like sautéed mushrooms and onions. Second: the Vidalia onion was named Georgia’s official state vegetable in 1990.

Simmering pot of mushrooms and Vidalia onions.

My Pot Of Vidalia Onions And Mushrooms

So what happens when Vidalia onion season is over? No more sweet onions until next year? Nope… Hello Peru. Peru’s soil and climate are so similar to Vidalia’s you can grow a very familiar sweet onion. As Chip puts it, “The onions are cousins.” Great news for us. As consumers we can get Vidalia onions 5 months a year and its Peruvian cousin 7 months a year. 

Believe it or not some people don’t know that Vidalia, GA is a real place or that it’s where Vidalia onions come from. These poor souls. My hairdresser is one of them. After a long conversation about these wonderful onions he went out and bought some. On my next visit, once every 6 weeks – gotta keep the gray out — he told me how delicious they are. You see he really did not believe that an onion could be so delicious. He was converted. All in all, not bad for a man who does not cook.

OFF WE GO! WTFCF Returned To Vidalia, GA March 31 And April 1

Our first stop was the packinghouse at Shuman Farms. John Shuman, President and CEO of Shuman Farms, gave us a tour. There are so many components to the packinghouse. We saw the shipping cooler, unloading dock, drying room, and packing line. Most of the packing line was shut down. They were cleaning all the machines and equipment getting ready for the new crop coming in. John is a stickler for cleanliness – nice to know, right?!

Naturally, there was a lot of conversation between Chip and John so I wondered off to do what I do best – take pictures.

Onions moving through packing house machinery

Did you ever see so many onions in one bucket? I am sure there is a technical name, but I don’t know it. All I could think about was how many batches of mushrooms and onions I could make. As my kids would say, “I would not be mad about it!”

It was time to move on. But the skies had opened up and the wind could literally knock me over. John brought out huge umbrellas (please don’t let him know we still have one) and we did make it to our cars.

Our Second Stop Was John Shuman’s Hunting Lodge

This house was absolutely mind blowing! There were things in there I did not understand. Like why are there two identical bathrooms side-by-side? When I was telling my son-in-law about it he said, “That isn’t a house, it’s a hunting lodge.” I did not want to be intrusive, so I don’t have too many pictures. But, I do have one of the kitchen and part of the family room.

Ladies, the kitchen was unbelievable. I liked the six burner stove the best and would have loved to play with it, but alas I am not the WTFCF resident seven-year-old.

While we were setting up a shoot in the kitchen… that’s where it happened! We heard a huge crash (we were rolling at the time — our cameraman Jake Hallman caught a very funny Chip blooper, but due to its content I cannot repeat it). Again, I digress.

Cameraman Jake Hallman filming Chip

Jake Hallman

So what exactly happened? Wind, horrible blustering wind. The very large outdoor ceiling fan had crashed from the roof of the patio, onto the table, smashing the table and breaking the fan. Talk about one scary moment… and one of us had to tell John. Well the lucky person was me. I admit I was a bit nervous about this, but John took it with a grain of salt and simply said he would have to get it fixed. Shooo what a relief! That really could have spoiled the mood.

As you can tell the shoot was with Chip and the onions. Using what looked like a very large cleaver he cut one open. Oh yeah, see that wonderful six burner stove I talked about earlier?

Chip has eaten many onions, but there must have been something different about this one. The look on his face was priceless! Maybe he took too big a bite or it may have needed a little salt. I really don’t know.

Host Chip Carter eating an onion.
Host Chip Carter and CEO of Shuman Farms, John Shuman

Chip and John Shuman

Finally, the interview with John. It took place in part of the family room. The topics were more on the serious side, all of which can be seen in the episode.

Between the rain and the wind, the day was exhausting. Some of us were very happy when it was over. But who knew what the next day would bring.

Our Next Stop Took Us To The Offices Of The Vidalia Onion Committee

Why does Vidalia have a Committee? The answer is simple. To protect and manage the quality of the Vidalia onion.

To further discuss the role and magnitude of the committee Chip interviewed Bob Stafford. Since 1994 Bob was aboard the Vidalia Business Council and since 2017 he has fulfilled the position of Executive Director, Vidalia Onion Committee. What I found surprising is he is a native Floridian. In Florida he worked 34 years as the East Coast fruit and vegetable inspector for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.  I imagine agriculture is really in his blood.

Bob Stafford sitting in Vidalia Onion museum.

Bob Stafford

Chip and Bob Stafford sitting in chairs chatting.

Bob and Chip

There are so many adjectives I have used to describe our guests: passionate, devoted and spiritual to name a few. But honestly Bob is all of these and more. He is a small, gentle-spoken man who exudes so much confidence. He has a true love for the crop, its history, what he does, and how he helps protect that special onion.

Chip has told me if there is a vegetable stand by the side of the road promoting Vidalia onions and it is off-season people will tell Bob. So what does he do? He drives however far he needs to correct the situation and gets the sign down. Now that really is devotion.

He tickles me with his crown of full white hair and his heavily starched shirts. The shirts are what really get me and I never fail to mention that to him when I see him. On a side note, no matter how hard I tried Bob would not dance with me at the Vidalia Onion Banquet.

Vidalia onion statue.

The interview took place in the offices of the Vidalia Onion Museum, a 1300 square foot building rich in Vidalia history. One of the first things you see when you walk in is a huge Vidalia onion. I tried to move the onion away from the window to get a better picture with no luck it must have been made of steel.

The interior of the building houses the museum. It provides the visitor with a full history, from start to finish, of the Vidalia onion. You may remember in Season 1; Episodes 12 & 13 Bob gave Chip a full tour and explanation of everything in the museum. If you are ever in Vidalia, GA it is definitely worth your time to check it out. There is no fee, but they do accept donations to maintain the beauty of the museum. 

Display of the history of the Vidalia onion.

Onto the interview. As you can see, from a previous picture, the interview took place in a small cubicle highlighting Vidalia onions in all their glory. Pictures of the food made me hungry. Thank goodness I am able to find Vidalia onion recipes in the Where The Food Comes From Cookbook as the editor of the cookbook that was a bit of a self-promotion.

The topic of discussion came as no surprise. Of course it was about the Vidalia onions. It starts with the humble beginnings to where the onion is today. I don’t think Bob told one of my favorite stories in this interview, but he definitely did in Season 1, Episodes 12 & 13.

Let me try to give you the gist of the story. There was a man in Florida who liked the onion so much he carried a bag with him to restaurants. He would ask them to cook the onions with his meal. Well one day he and his girlfriend were walking and a mugger approached. So what did he do? He beat the mugger with the bag of onions and saved the day! Not a very good rendition, but you get the idea.

Gift shops. What museum would be complete without a gift shop? This gift shop sells all kinds of Vidalia onion paraphernalia. I am a sucker for cuff bracelets and could not resist this one:

Vidalia onion bracelet.

Off To A&M Farms

A&M stands for Aries and Megan owners of the farm. We met Aries Haygood in Season 1; Episodes 12 & 13. In this episode, Aries explained his battle with colon cancer and the support system he had. Is strong faith carried him through this and he did win his battle. His story brought tears to my eyes and I am sure the same thing happened with many of our viewers. But, today was different and Chip talked to Aries in one of his onion fields.

Chip interviews Aries Haygood in his Vidalia onion farm.

Chip and Aries Haygood

The blustery winds from the day before continued. Chip and Aries had to wear special fuzzy microphones that, to me, looked like hedgehogs clipped to their shirts.

What amazes me is the frankness with which Aries speaks. He is not afraid to share both the good and the bad. He always has a smile on his face and with his upbeat personality you can’t help loving him.

Today, he spoke about the onion field we were in. So what – many interviews take place in the fields. We are used to hearing about the success of a field, but this was not the case. There was a problem with this particular field.

Rows of Vidalia onions in the field.
Aries Haygood holding a Vidalia onion.

If you look closely at the picture you will see some of these onions have long stems growing out of them and what looks like a flower bulb on top. No Bueno (remember this is favorite saying of mine).

This condition is called bolting. Time to go back to Google. Bolting is when a crop prematurely grows flower stalks and produces seeds. When this happens it interferes with crops growing a good harvest by redirecting the growth cycle to the stalk and flower instead of the plant. Bolting makes the product unsuitable for consumer marketing.

Aries explained there is no rhyme or reason why this happens to one field and not another. I find this interesting because bolting is a result of hot weather and geographically all his farms are in the same area. But moisture plays a role, too — a low-lying area of a field might be susceptible while rows across the hill aren’t.

Good news — well good news for us. We had the opportunity to once again taste an onion from Aries’s field. Trust me, it tasted as good as any Vidalia onion I have ever eaten.

Tractor harvesting Vidalia onions.

Side note, I did jump on my phone and videoed two of our grandchildren back home and gave them a tour of the onion field and harvester. They are pretty young, but hopefully, somewhere in the back of their minds they will remember this.

So that was our two-day trip. We explored John Shuman’s immaculate packing house. We learned about the Peruvian onion and its relationship to the Vidalia onion. We met Bob Stafford and discovered more facts about Vidalia, and more details about the origin of the onion. Last-but-not-least we spoke with Aries Haygood and learned about problems onion growers can experience. It’s another day in Vidalia, GA. And that’s one of our favorite places to be.

Vidalia onion official license plates.