R.T. Stanley Jr., a longtime member of Richter and Co.’s family of farms, is the latest inductee of the Vidalia Onion Hall of Fame.
More than 200 guests watched him receive the top honor in February during the Vidalia Onion Committee’s 2018 awards banquet that also celebrated the onion’s official trademark nearly 26 years ago.
The actual industry traces its roots to Toombs County, Georgia. In the 1930s, weather there wiped out the state’s regular onion crop, and a train car full of seedlings from Texas shipped to Georgia just in time. Those onions were sweet, though, and most farmers scratched their heads, worried that what they grew might not be fiery enough for local taste buds. Luckily, Piggly Wiggly customers fell in love, kindling a new romance with the onion grown only in 20 South Georgia counties. Appreciation for the Vidalia spread slowly across America, and today it is a No. 1 pick of chefs and home cooks around the world.
R.T.’s family lives in Toombs County, home of Vidalia — one of two top-producing onion counties in the Vidalia growing region. Junior began farming Vidalias with his father, Rodney Taylor Stanley Sr., in the 1980s, when the onion first became a household name. Many considered their willingness to abandon tobacco, a more “traditional” crop, for Vidalias a gamble at best. But rolling the dice forever changed the Stanleys’ farming operation and made them pioneers in the sweet onion market.
R.T. was among the core group of Vidalia farmers who fought to attain legal status for the onion, clearly defining its growing region and getting the name Vidalia trademarked. He also fought for the Vidalia to become Georgia’s official state vegetable. Today, Vidalias aren’t just another Southern something, like grits and sweet tea. They are sold in 50 states and parts of Canada.
R.T. is retired from the Vidalia, Ga.-based Stanley Farms, where he served as president. His farm life began in 1964 as a sharecropper, and when R.T. acquired land of his own in 1975, he planted 5 acres of Vidalias. In 2016 Stanley Farms merged with Coggins Farm and Produce to form Generation Farms, the largest grower, processor, packer, and shipper of sweet onions on the East Coast.