On April 20, Georgia’s Vidalia onion growers started shipping this year’s crop, which is expected to be high in quality and yields. No grower can ship onions before this opening day, which the Georgia Department of Agriculture regulates to protect the quality and reputation of the state’s official vegetable.

Growing during Georgia’s winter months, the onions face many challenges from disease to wet and cold days to dry and hot weather and everything in between. And to help them stay in the black each year, growers have depended on the odd coupling of University of Georgia researchers and prison labor.

A select group of inmates from the Rogers State Prison near Reidsville, Ga., provide the essential, labor-intensive work that’s necessary at the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Vidalia Onion and Vegetable Research Center. The fledging center is the brainchild of Reid Torrance, UGA Cooperative Extension coordinator in Tattnall County.

“This is the only place in this part of the state that conducts commercial vegetable research, but also it’s unique because of the inmate labor detail,” Torrance says.

In vegetable research, he says, it makes a big difference when labor is readily available for timely harvests. The prison labor, worth $120,000 annually, is a big savings for the facility, which has become vital in an effort to support the state’s fastest growing commodity group. Worth $500 million annually, vegetables rank second behind poultry in farm-gate sales. Vidalia onions generated more than $140 million at the farm level in 2007.

“Growers had always wanted research done in the onion belt,” said Torrance, one of the world’s foremost Vidalia onion experts. “Other than on-farm projects, we didn’t really have any place to do that.”

Late in 1998, Torrance had a brainstorm: “We’ve got 9,000 acres out there at the prison, and surely they have a little corner out there somewhere where we can do some research.”

He made some calls and arranged a meeting with UGA and Department of Corrections representatives along with legislators and onion growers. The old Page Nursery, a site where the Georgia Forestry Commission once grew pine seedlings, was determined the perfect site for a research facility.

UGA researchers quickly established onion research plots there. Soon after, Torrance inked a 15-year lease agreement for 22 acres of fields and three acres with usable buildings. Funding to support the center came from the legislature and private supporters.

In spring of 2000, 80 people attended the center’s first onion field day. In less than a year, a dozen projects relating to several disciplines were under way. Now the center needed to staff and equip the facility.

Torrance needed working hands more than anything, and he didn’t have to look far. The prison inmates were right there.

The center continues to grow. Scientists across the state from a variety of disciplines now conduct research there.

In 2008, the forestry commission gave all 142 acres of the old nursery to the college. Torrance raised funds and worked with DOC engineers to develop plans for a new building.

“At the onion field day now, we have more than 100 people. An international audience comes to see our varieties,” Torrance says. “We also have twilight field days for summer and fall vegetables. And, we have an emphasis on organic onion production.”

The center had cotton and soybean plots last year and will likely have them again, along with peanuts, this year.

“The difference between what we had and what we have now is night and day,” Torrance says.

He hopes to continue to upgrade the center and get more UGA Extension agents involved with research there. Most importantly, he wants the center to be known for conducting accurate, reliable research for the state’s growers.