A grower’s court challenge to the change of the Vidalia onion start date should be thrown out because he failed to serve the Georgia attorney general with the complaint, according to the state agriculture commissioner’s response.
The grower, Delbert Bland, owner of Bland Farms in Glennville, Ga., is represented in the case by Georgia’s former attorney general Michael Bowers.
In addition to the alleged failed service, the state contends Bland is wrong in his assertion that commissioner Gary Black does not have the authority to change the start date — now set on the Monday of the last full week in April every year.
“The statute speaks for itself,” is repeated five times in the state’s response, which makes two similar statements regarding state regulations.
Bland, who owned and contracted for about a fourth of the 12,600 Vidalia onion acres planted for the 2013 season, says Black is harming Vidalia growers whose onions are ready for market before the official start date.
Many other growers and members of the Vidalia Onion Business Council say the exact opposite is true.
Bob Stafford, manager of the council, said the vast majority of growers are in favor of the later date. He said they asked the commissioner to take action to stop the flow of immature Vidalia onions that has caused consumer and retailer complaints in recent years.
“We knew we had a serious problem this season when we couldn’t get the price back up,” Stafford said recently, referring to the pricing curve the trademarked sweet onions usually follow.
Vidalias opened in April for $20 per 40-pound box, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. By late May jumbos and colossal hit $22, but in June, when prices should have reflected the height of the season, prices were $14-18 per box. Prices bottomed in mid-August at $12-14 and ended with the final report Sept. 9 at $14-16.
The new start date does not include an early ship clause, which Bland also doesn’t like. In his complaint he said he “customarily” shipped early via a clause in the previous rule.
Previously the start date was set each year by the commissioner after the Vidalia Onion Advisory Panel made a recommendation.
Growers could send their Vidalias to market earlier if they paid for special inspections by the USDA and the onions met No. 1 grade standards.
Stafford said the new start date won’t stop anyone from shipping onions early, but they will have to be appropriately labeled.
“He’s not saying you can’t sell your onions. You just can’t use the Vidalia trademark on them before the start date,” Stafford said.