If winter’s here, can spring be far behind? It certainly seems far to Vidalia oniongrowers, whose big-money crop has to survive a perilous winter to become thesweet onion the world has come to love. Starting well, though, may mean no more than scoring first in a ball game.”We’ve got a long, long way to go before this crop is made,” Torrance said. “The onions are certainly starting better than in the past few seasons,” Torrancesaid. “We’ve gotten off to a very good start.” Vidalia onion growers ended the 1996 season on a dismal note. The season startedwith bad weather and got progressively worse until February and early-Marchfreezes finished the damage. Growers lost as much as $50 million. Near Vidalia, where the prized sweet onions get their name, growers weren’t quiteas far along. “We’ve got about 70 percent of the crop planted,” Hartley said. “A number of growers who set onions through December and into January arefinishing up now,” he said two weeks before Christmas. “We’ve probably got 90percent of the crop in right now.” “We’re a little ahead of schedule here,” Torrance said. Tattnall County farmersgrow nearly half of the sweet specialty crop. Both county agents said the onions started out well. “We had good transplants,”Hartley said. “That’s the key. We got good, pencil-sized, disease-free onions out ofour beds.”Tattnall growers planted as many or slightly more onions than last year, Torrancesaid. But they didn’t get ahead of schedule by starting early, which can lead toproblems later on. The onions can withstand some hard winter weather, but extreme freezes and highwinds can take a heavy toll. “We didn’t jump the gun on transplanting,” he said. “We started in earnest aboutthe second week in November. We just had good labor available. And we hadgood working weather. We certainly weren’t held up by rain.” “We needed a good start, if nothing else, for the morale boost,” said Terry Kelley,a horticulturist with the University of Georgia Extension Service. Vidalia onions are harvested in midspring, mostly during May.Controlled-atmosphere storage, though, now allows growers to stretch out the timethey can market quality Vidalia onions. With a long winter ahead, Vidalia onion growers aren’t counting any profits yet.But after some rough seasons in recent years, they’re happy with the way this onehas begun. “We’ve had pretty fair moisture in December, though,” he said. “We’re off to agood start.” In fact, the only hitch in the early planting, Torrance said, was a lack of rain inNovember. Some growers had to irrigate fields to get enough moisture into theground before transplanting in the early going. “Onion growers don’t like a lot of warm weather early on,” Hartley said. “Acooling trend is best. You don’t want to get too much growth on the onions tooearly.” At least the 1997 crop has gotten off to a good start. What growers want, he said, is weather cool enough to allow the onions’ roots toget a good head start on the rest of the plant. Onions take the hardest hit when temperatures drop into the low teens after aspell of warm, sunny days. That causes serious damage to fresh, tender growth onthe plants. “If growers could order their weather, they’d want nights around 38-45 degreesand days around 60-65,” Hartley said. And they’d want the winter cool-down andspring warm-up to be gradual trends. But the ’97 crop has started out much better, said Rick Hartley and ReidTorrance, county extension directors in, respectively, Toombs and Tattnallcounties, where more than 80 percent of Vidalia onions are grown.