From The Islands
The sweet onion first came to south Texas from the Bermuda Islands, when a handful of Yellow Bermuda onion seeds were planted near Cotulla in 1898. This island variety of onion was considerably milder than other onions at the time and consumers demanded more of this exotic onion. Its hard to believe that the planting of one sleepy south Texas garden was the dawn of a global sweet onion revolution.
By 1920, the Bermuda Islands onion farms struggled to reach the new demand for their sweet tropical varieties. The island farmers could not produce the amount of seeds required due to the plummeting quality of the island seeds. Texas farmers needed a more reliable onion and in time they would get their wish.
The Mother Onion: “Texas Early Grano 502”
In 1933, Texas A&M’s Texas Agricultural experiment station started an onion breeding program at the Winter Garden outpost in Crystal City, Texas. What happened next was nothing short of a miracle, and it is a story best told by someone who was there. Thanks to the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, we tracked down a firsthand account of the creation of the legendary Grano 502 sweet onion. Jerry Parsons, a Texas Agricultural Extension Service Horticulturist interviewed Texas horticulture legend Ernest Mortenson (a man who was at the Winter Garden in Crystal City), for the San Antonio Light Newspaper in 1979 to document the truth:
“Horticulturists of the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station (Crystal City, Texas) used crossing techniques to improve tomatoes, cantaloupes, and strawberries. Our main crop, onions, are not easy to cross since they have large flower heads, so we didn’t attempt much in onion breeding. We had good relations with Dr. Fabian Garcia, Director of the New Mexico Agricultural Experiment Station, and he had obtained a high yielding variety from Spain from which he had selected a strain for New Mexico he named Grano (Babosa). We tried this and when our grower neighbors saw the trial, they ordered all the seed available. In 1938, the Byrd Cattle company at Winter Haven, Texas had 10 to 15 acres of the Grano. This variety required a longer day to form bulbs and was 10 to 14 days later than Bermuda. This is a market disadvantage which tended to offset the much higher yield. We also had good relations with Dr. Henry A. Jones, onion breeder for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He advised us that earliness in onions is a recessive character and will reproduce in successive generations. Mr. Leslie R. Hawthorn, vegetable specialist at the Winter Garden Station, obtained permission from the Byrd Cattle Company to harvest all the early maturing bulbs on a certain date. He and his assistant, Oneal Blackard, spent one day harvesting all the bulbs that had matured in the whole field. This amounted to 4 or 5 bushels which were then stored in our station barn. Temperatures were high that summer, so many of them rotted, more than half. They were then sent to Greeley, Colorado, for increasing the seed.”
“These seeds were planted for the 1940 crop and there proved to be enough plants for one acre. In the spring of 1940, I was making my customary tour of the farm and came upon this block of onions in the midst of the rest with all of the tops down indicating maturity at the same time. I had forgotten these Granos and wondered what had happened so I hastened to the office to inform Hawthorn. Then we found that this selection was 10 days to two weeks earlier than the normal Bermuda types grown at that time. In addition, because of the large tops, the yield was much higher. Large bulbs were in demand in those days so the seed was soon multiplied by the commercial seedsmen. The original field number was 502 so the name Texas Grano 502 was first used and, in most cases, still is in use. Officially, the name of the onion released by Texas A&M University in 1944 is Texas Early Grano. This has been grown in Central America, Palestine, Australia and other parts of the warmer regions of the world.” -Ernest Mortenson, 1979 San Antonio Light Newspaper
Granex & The Birth of the Vidalia Onion
The Texas early Grano from field 502 were large, mild onions suited to grow in the southern most parts of the country which explains why it was so productive in Texas. However, this large sweet early Grano 502 wasn’t famous all over the world until it met the Excel 986 onion. The Texas onion breeding program expanded significantly once they partnered with the United States Department of Agriculture in 1939. The USDA and the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station introduced the Excel 986, which was selected from a single Yellow Bermuda plant.
The Texas onion program crossed the Excel 986 with the Texas Early Grano 502 in 1952 which created the heavenly Granex onion. The Texas-bred Granex has become famous around the world by many different names. One of the most notable is the Vidalia onion which is actually just a Texas Granex grown in Georgia soil. A few Granex transplants were brought to Toombs County, Georgia by an onion farmer named Moses Coleman. “In 1952, Granex transplants from Dixondale Farms in Carrizo Springs, Texas were first shipped to Georgia” according to Dixondale Farms President, Wallace Martin. Other south Georgia farmers began to take notice that Mr. Coleman could sell 50 lb bags of his sweet for $3.50 (which at the time was a large price tag for onions). During the Great Depression these farming families struggled to get fair prices for their produce. Once they saw Coleman profiting off these Texas transplants, they decided to grow the sweet onions themselves.
Once Toombs County began growing these high dollar onions, the State of Georgia provided the Vidalia growers with a farmers market. The Vidalia market had the advantage of being located near some of Georgia’s busiest highways and interstates which added to the popularity of the Vidalia sweet onion. Vidalia started an onion festival and tourism drove their crop into international acclaim.
There will always be debates over which state has the sweeter onion, but Georgian’s argue that the Vidalia is the sweeter and milder because of the low pH of their soil due to all the pinewood forests and their unique climate during the growing season. However, there is no denying that whatever you want to call it, Vidalia or Maui Maui, that onion is a Texas bred Granex.
The Onion industry brings in around $70 million to Texas a year. In Georgia, our onions bring in around $50 million a year. The estimated economic impact of the Onion industry in Texas is $350 million, in Georgia it is around $150 million.
The advent of the Texas sweet onion is one of our state’s finest horticultural achievements. The economic impact is undeniable, wherever the Granex onion has gone, millions of dollars have followed. Texans love their sweet onions. The Texas sweet onion is a staple in all Tex-Mex, BBQ, and Texas comfort recipes. Its February, and now is the perfect time to start Onions here in Austin. Why not grow your own Texas Legend?