“It’s important to note that the growers asked the commissioner for help. He was invited to come to Vidalia to discuss ways to ensure the quality of the crop that is going to market,” said Bob Stafford, who manages the Vidalia Onion Business Council and works with the Vidalia Onion Advisory Panel.
A vote at a May 30 growers’ meeting showed 11-1 in favor of the change, Stafford said.
Delbert Bland, of Bland Farms Inc., Glennville, filed a lawsuit challenging the change. He contends it is contrary to state statute. The state’s response to Blan’s complaint is due Nov. 18. An attorney for Bland said there will likely be a ruling in March or April.
The new start date is the Monday of the last full week in April every year. For 2014, that date is April 21.
Growers’ concerns not new
Black said growers started asking for his help at least 18 months ago. Stafford and several growers confirmed that.
Coral BeachRobert Dasher — G&R FarmsThey have become increasingly concerned about the effect immature onions have had on the industry, said Robert Dasher, 50-plus-year onion grower and co-owner of G&R Farms, Glennville, Ga.
“They might pass the U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection for grade No. 1, but they aren’t mature Vidalias,” Dasher said. “They don’t have the shelf life because they’re too wet. When consumers try to slice them the rings fall apart because they’re soggy.”
When the onions started hitting retail shelves in early April, Black said his phone started ringing. He said he sent out inspectors and traveled to several stores himself to check the quality of the Vidalias. They were sub-par, he said.
In response, Black proposed the new rule in late June. It became law in August.
Black said on Nov. 14 that the process, which included three listening sessions and a public hearing, was completed early enough so growers could buy appropriate varieties of seed to meet the later start date, which is in effect for 2014.
“This is about maturity and shelf life,” Black said. “The objective is to get growers to choose varieties that come in with those qualities.”
Michael Hively, chief financial officer for Curry & Co., Brooks, Ore, and a partner in Sweet Vidalia Onions LLC, Collins, Ga., said the commissioner had to act. He said part of the problem is that inspection standards merely call for No. 1 grade onions to be “fairly firm.”
Several growers said Vidalia onions have to be more than “fairly” firm before they are shipped because of the nature of sweet onion flesh.
“I would have preferred tighter inspection standards, but at the end of the day, he is the commissioner and we respect that,” Hively said.
Tighter inspection standards are not an option, at least in the short term, Black said, because that would require state legislative action and involvement of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Black considered adding inspectors, but when he ran the numbers that would have added a collective $1 million in annual costs for producers, according to a letter he sent to growers.
Growers on the record
During a July 30 public hearing, representatives for three growers spoke in favor of the change — Aries Haygood, M&T Farms, Lyons, Ga.; Brett McLain, McLain Farms, Alliance, Ga.; and Robert Dasher, G&R Farms, Glennville, Ga.
David Jarriel, Dry Branch Farms, Collins, Ga., said he was “on the fence.”
Jerry Pittman, Pittman Family Farms, Alliance, Ga., spoke against the change, as did attorneys representing Delbert Bland, Bland Farms Inc., Glennville. Bland also filed written comments against the change, as did Pittman.
Four growers submitted written comments supporting the change — Shuman Produce Inc., Reidsville, Ga.; Braddy Farms, Mt. Vernon, Ga.; Roberson Onion Co., Hazlehurst, Ga.; and Hendrix Produce Inc., Metter, Ga.
Bland, who said in March this year that his company owns about 2,000 acres of Vidalia onions and contracts for another 1,000 acres, is concerned that he will have onions that are ready to ship but won’t be able to because of the new rule. About 12,600 acres of Vidalia onions were planted for the 2013 season, Stafford said.
Bland contends weather and other factors add up to different start times for different growers.
However, other growers say the new rule has flexibility built in while eliminating loopholes of the old system, which allowed growers to obtain special inspections to ship earlier than the official start date. It also allows growers to begin the harvest and curing process as needed.
“We were given the opportunity to self regulate and it didn’t work” said John Shuman, president of Shuman Produce.
“If there is a reason to start earlier, the rule has a clause for that.”
The clause, which Black also cited, states “The commissioner may, depending on crop conditions and with the recommendation of the Vidalia Onion Advisory Panel, specify a packing date other than the Monday of the last full week in April.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: During the editing process errors were inserted into the version of this story that went to press for The Packer’s Nov. 18 print edition. The print edition incorrectly reports the new start date. The new start date is the Monday of the last full week in April every year. For 2014 that date is April 21. The print edition also incorrectly stated the date of a growers’ vote regarding the change. The vote was taken at a May 30 growers’ meeting. The Packer regrets the errors.