Sweet home Carolina

More than a few people would like a piece of the Vidalia onion pie.

South Georgia’s famous sweet onion, one of the best-known brands in the produce industry, overwhelmingly dominates its market. But South Carolina farmers, as well as the state Department of Agriculture, are smelling an opportunity to challenge Vidalia’s stronghold.

Beginning this week, consumers may see dry South Carolina-grown sweet onions showing up in stores ranging from Walmart to Whole Foods. Restaurants using them are likely touting the “local” onion, too.

Farmers like Kent Scott of St. Matthews, the state’s largest grower, invite you to taste the difference — or at least the comparative quality.

“Comparing an apple to an apple, we have as good or better onion than any Vidalia we’ve had this year,” Scott declares.

The fledgling South Carolina crop got its start four years ago. The idea was hatched during a quail hunt at Scott’s farm in Calhoun County when the talk turned to farming.

Scott’s family has a 30-year-plus history of growing Vidalias near Statesboro, Ga. So he and his sister, Lou Bragg, decided to give it a go in the Palmetto State.

A small test plot was planted with good results, including a favorable taste trial. The South Carolina onions were rated “extra sweet” by the National Onion Labs (who knew?) in Collins, Ga., scoring between 2 and 3 on a pungency scale, with zero being optimal.

Any so-called sweet onion, including Vidalia, must achieve a rating of 5 or less to earn the status. Standard onions register about 8 on the scale.

Scott maintains that the soil in South Carolina’s midstate “peanut belt,” about 100 miles inland, is much the same as the sandy, loamy soil that Vidalias thrive in further south in Georgia.

Furthermore, the onion variety is identical. Both are a yellow Granex-type.

However, “Vidalia” is a name trademarked by the state of Georgia since the late 1980s. At the same time, the state defined the production area of 13 counties and parts of seven more.

In South Carolina, the onions are likely to have names such as “Palmetto Sweets” or “South Carolina Sweets,” two of the four labels that Scott owns.

The onions will be available as loose jumbos or in 4- to 5-pound bags. Prices should be similar to or slightly higher than Vidalias, Scott says.

A handful of others have joined Scott in growing sweet onions in the past three years. Ansley Rast Turnblad, marketing specialist with the state agriculture department, estimates there are about 120 acres under cultivation this year.

Her own father, Monty Rast of Cannon Bridge Berries farm in Orangeburg, is a supplier for GrowFood Carolina, a nonprofit distribution center in Charleston that links small farmers with local restaurants and grocers.

Sara Clow, GrowFood’s general manager, says her warehouse received its first shipment of dried South Carolina sweet onions last week. Whole Foods will sell them, and likely Earth Fare and Piggly Wiggly Northbridge.

Several restaurants also are purchasing them, including Slightly North of Broad and Husk downtown, Heart Woodfire Kitchen on James Island and Carter’s Kitchen in Mount Pleasant.

“It’s a fabulous onion,” she says.

“There’s been good repeat business,” says Sonny Dickinson, assistant director of marketing with the agriculture department. “We’re still creating a market for it in South Carolina and the market has been fertile, I can tell you that.”

Scott echoes Dickinson’s optimism, in part because of the consumer loyalty he’s seen here. “South Carolina customers are more local-buy oriented than anywhere I’ve ever seen. You love your peaches ... and like collards and greens, there’s hardly an area in South Carolina that doesn’t carry a green somehow.”