In Georgia, a legal battle is being waged over onions! Specifically, Vidalia onions are being subjected to a new rule by the state’s agricultural commissioner directed at preventing unripe onions from being available to consumers.
The Associated Press reports that at a hearing in rural Tattnall County, Superior Court Judge Jay Stewart denied a request by farmer Delbert Bland to stop the commissioner from enforcing the new rule prohibiting Vidalia onions from being packed for shipping before the last full week of April.
The regulation was actually dismissed by an Atlanta judge last month, but Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black says that as far as he is concerned, it’s still in effect while state attorneys are filing an appeal.
Bland has around 3,000 acres of Vidalia onions, and his fight is not exclusively against Black. There are other farmers who are afraid that unripe onions being rushed to market will hurt the brand’s reputation. Vidalia onion sales are worth around $150 million a year.
Despite Black warning growers not to ship onions before next Monday, Bland has started packing his crop in boxes, and had them graded by federal inspectors this week. Bland said he intends to start shipping onions to supermarkets Wednesday in defiance of the judge’s ruling. He added:
“I’m shipping the onions because they’re mature and they’re excellent quality and they’re ready to be shipped. We don’t feel like it’s fair that the government dictates what day we can ship the onions.”
Mary Kathryn Yearta, speaking for the commissioner, praised the judge’s decision and said, “we look forward to continuing the discussions regarding the Vidalia onion pack date in appellate court.”
The judge told Bland that if he wants to stop the agriculture commissioner, the correct legal route would be to return to the Atlanta court and ask the previous judge to find Black in contempt of court.
Mike Bowers, the former Georgia attorney general who is representing Bland, said:
“We didn’t get exactly what we wanted, but given the language of the judge’s order I’m not displeased at all. It means the state had best be careful trying to enforce this invalid rule against my client.”
Until now, Vidalia onion farmers have been permitted to ship onions earlier than the official start date if federal inspectors gave them a U.S. 1 grade. The new packing rule essentially stops that. If the rule is enforced, Bland could face fines of up to $5,000 per box or bag of onions. He could also lose his license to label his crops as Vidalia onions, because the trademark belongs to the state of Georgia.
Walt Dasher, one of the other onion farmers opposed to Bland, was one of the two dozen Vidalia onion farmers who attended the court hearing Tuesday. He alleged that early shipments of unripe onions last year was such a problem that supermarkets complained of customers returning them for refunds.
“When somebody purchases our onions in a store, it’s got to be the quality we’re known for,” Dasher said. “We’ve got a good thing and we don’t want to mess it up.”