The story of how the Southeastern Farmer of the Year helped grow the Vidalia onion into one of the biggest brands in agriculture.
By Richard Banks | Photos By Jamie Cole
Robert and Gerald Dasher helped bring international fame to the pride of their hometown—the Vidalia® onion, the sweet, aromatic marvel named after a small burg in southeast Georgia. The only problem is the Dashers are from Glennville, a town about 40 miles to the east, where folks also laid claim to the onions and didn’t cotton to their rival town getting naming rights.
The two towns had sold the onion under their respective names, because they bookend the traditional Vidalia growing region, where the right combination of mild winter climate and sandy, rocky soil give the yellow Granex onion its signature sweet flavor. Where farmers such as Robert and Gerald’s father, Walter, pioneered the planting of the onion during the Great Depression and war years. Where locals claimed the variety as a source of pride … and as theirs.
As it turns out, the Dashers found themselves on the hot seat because they ran one of the first Glennville growing operations to sell their onions through area Piggly Wiggly grocery stores. This was the early 1970s, well before the Vidalia went national and the grocery store chain reportedly sold more of the onions than any other single source. Nothing controversial there, until you consider that the store’s distributorship was located in, you guessed it, Vidalia.
Since the 1940s, Vidalia had been the home of the first state farmers’ market to showcase the onion, and now with the Pig’s warehouse located there, too, they put their claim to the onion in writing.
“‘Vidalia sweet onions grown and packed for Piggly Wiggly Southern, Vidalia, Georgia,’” says Robert, reciting the label printed on the Pig’s bag that held the onion. “Now, they were the same onions that had been grown for 40 years right here in my hometown, but they decided to start marketing them through Vidalia.
“Well, I thought they were going to run us out of town here in Glennvile,” says Robert, of his neighbors’ reaction to the brothers working with what amounted to the other team. “We had people say to us, ‘You’re traitors. You don’t even care about your town.’”
These days, however, his neighbors are more inclined to say, “thanks” for his and Gerald’s efforts on behalf of their local agricultural jewel. Over the years, the brothers pounded pavement and office doors across the country promoting the Vidalia. The Dashers were early adopters of controlled-atmosphere storage that gave the Vidalia a longer shelf life. They also developed a new, coated cardboard box for shipping that helped give the onion a greater geographical range.
Perhaps their biggest marketing coup was brokering a deal to sell onions to Kroger grocery stores. “That’s what really started to take the onion national,” says Robert. “The volume was huge and required onions from lots of growers down here.”
Because of the efforts of Robert, Gerald and other local farmers, the Vidalia is now one of North America’s most recognizable agricultural products. It brings in an annual farm gate value of $140 million and is protected by a Federal Marketing Order that provides marketing and research funding.
It was for his work on behalf of the Vidalia, as well as his help in building G&R Farms into an innovative, diversified farming operation that Robert was named the 2010 Swisher Sweets/ Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year. In giving him the annual award, the judges noted his enterprising start, when, at age 10, he began farming. He took out his first loan at 16 and, when he was in his early 20s, formed a partnership with Gerald called G&R Farms.
Together, the brothers seemed to have never stood still. They inherited less than 50 acres when their father died, then grew that enterprise into 4,800 acres of ranch and cropland, about 700 of which is dedicated to growing Vidalias. Among other operations, G&R owns a few thousand acres of timberland and 2,500 head of cattle.
The judges commended Robert’s work that centered around the Vidalia and by extension helped his neighbors. “Our decision was based not only on the quality of his farming operation,” says judge James Lee Adams, “but also on how he has assisted with the economic development of other farmers in his area, and even more so, the economic development of the area in which he lives.”
Robert says he was “shocked” when he received the award. “I thought they were pulling my leg. There were just too many other successful farmers in the running.”
There was, however, something missing from Robert’s big day, he says. It was his brother. Gerald passed away in 2003.
Robert is especially careful to recognize his brother’s good business sense and effort in promoting the Vidalia. “I want to give a lot of credit to him. He and his wife, Pam, drove all over selling this onion.
“Our daddy had just died, and I was fairly young when we formed this partnership. I had just gotten out of high school,” continues Robert, who was the youngest of five children. “Gerald thought big and we both kept pushing this business, because we thought there was real potential.”
Gerald’s son, Walt, and wife, Pam, still work at G&R, as does Robert’s wife Debbie and their two sons, Heath and Blake. “I can tell you right now,” Robert says, “this ain’t Robert Dasher’s farm. I mean, it might say G&R Farms, but this is a family-run business, and there ain’t enough family members to hardly go around.”
“There aren’t enough people like him and my uncle Gerald. They don’t make them like that much anymore,” says Blake. “That’s for sure.
“If you think about where they’ve come from and how far they’ve come in such a short period of time, it’s remarkable. I just feel very fortunate to be a part of this family.”
The 2011 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Ag Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year was named October 18, 2011, at the Sunbelt Ag Expo in Moultrie, Ga. For the past 14 years, Massey Ferguson has been a sponsor of the program, donating the use of a tractor to the Farmer of the Year. For more information on the Expo and the 2011 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Ag Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year, visit sunbeltexpo.com.