Vidalia onion farmer back in court over ship date

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — One of Georgia's most prominent Vidalia onion farmers is going back to court in an effort to stop the state agriculture commissioner from fining growers who ship the famous sweet onions before a certain date.

Delbert Bland, who grows Vidalia onions on about 3,000 acres in southeast Georgia, won the first round of a court battle with Commissioner Gary Black when a Fulton County judge ruled March 19th the commissioner overstepped his authority by ordering that no Vidalia onions could be packed for shipping before April 21. However, the farmer's court victory has had little immediate effect. Black is telling growers he still plans to enforce the restriction while the state appeals.

Saying he's got onions ready to ship now, Bland is asking a Superior Court judge on his home turf of Tattnall County to grand an injunction stopping Black until the appeal gets resolved. Mike Bowers, Georgia's former attorney general, represents Bland and was scheduled to argue his case Tuesday in a Reidsville courtroom.

"I've been doing this for 30 years and I've tried to be respectful and nice about it," Bland said Monday. "But he's gone way beyond his duties as commissioner of agriculture."

The legal fight revolves around efforts by the state Department of Agriculture to protect the reputation of Vidalia onions after hearing complaints that the quality of the world-famous crop was suffering because of early harvesting. Georgia law, which dictates the area in which Vidalia onions can be grown, also gives the agriculture commissioner certain powers that include setting a shipping date in consultation with farmers. But the law allows growers to ship onions earlier if federal inspectors give them a U.S. 1 grade.

Black began working with farmers 18 months ago to develop a rule that virtually eliminated early shipments by stating no onions could be packed for sale before the last full week in April, unless there was a consensus crops had ripened sooner. Many growers supported the move, saying it was needed to ensure onions have the proper sweetness and shelf-life.

"We believe this is going to work," Black said in a phone interview Monday. "There may be some nuances that could be altered in the rule in the future, but our commitment to the growers was to help them solve this issue. We have a major responsibility to ensure the consumer can trust in that trademark."

If Black is allowed to move forward with the rule, growers who ship onions before next Monday could be fined up to $5,000 for every bag or box sold early. Farmers could also lose their license to sell onions under the Vidalia trademark.

Bland said he was already boxing onions and meeting with U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors Monday for his first shipment of the year. He said he typically ships up to 150,000 boxes during the first week of the season, and being prohibited from selling onions he believes are ready for market would cost him serious money.

"If you went through a lifetime to develop a product that people would want, who would lose the most if you shipped it immature?" Bland said. "Onions are the type of commodity that, when they're mature and ready, you've got to harvest them. If you leave them in the field, they're going go bad."