Gary Black, Georgia agricultural commissioner
Gary Black, Georgia agricultural commissioner

Vidalia onions are on the road to retailers, but the route to market has been anything but smooth as legal wrangling about the official start date pitted a grower and Georgia’s agriculture commissioner against each other.

Bland Farms LLC, Glennville, Ga., started shipping on April 16, despite a rule from state Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black that sets the official date as the Monday of the last full week of April. This year that date is April 21.

Bland Farms owns and contracts for about 3,000 of the 12,600 certified Vidalia onion acres.

Volumes are still too light for price reports from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For many growers the April 21 date is a moot point this year because weather has delayed the growth cycle, said Bob Stafford, general manager of the Vidalia Onion Business Council.

“There isn’t hardly anyone even digging yet,” Stafford said April 17. “(The crop) won’t be wide open for a bit because it’s delayed this year. We’ve got everybody talking about quality, though, and that is good.”

Vidalia onions now available; legal battle continuesDiscussion of quality has been going on among the majority of Vidalia onion growers since they banded together in 2012 and asked Black to address the start date, Stafford said.

Growers were concerned about complaints from buyers about poor quality Vidalia onions in 2012 and 2013, Stafford said. They told Black they thought the state’s trademarked crop needd protection, contending that immature onions were shipped, arriving at retailers softer and less sweet than fully mature Vidalias should be, leading to lower prices.

Bland said he does not ship immature Vidalia onions. He said he plants earlier than many growers, so his onions mature earlier.

In response to the growers’ concerns, Stafford said, Black devised the new rule, which became effective in August 2013. Bland challenged it a month later in Fulton County Superior Court. Judge Cynthia Wright issued her decision March 19, saying Black had overstepped his authority.

Judge Wright’s decision states the new rule is invalid. However, she commended Black for trying to prevent “premature harvesting.”

The state filed a notice of appeal on Judge Wright’s decision. State officials say the notice put everything on hold and left the new rule in effect pending action by the Georgia Court of Appeals.

Bland filed a case April 8 in Fulton County, seeking an enforcement ban.

Vidalia onions now available; legal battle continuesFulton County Superior Court Judge D. Jay Stewart dismissed Bland’s case April 15. Bland and Black’s office both claimed victory.

“We believe Judge Stewart correctly dismissed the case,” Black’s office said. “… we look forward to continuing the discussions regarding the Vidalia onion pack date in appellate court.”

Bland’s attorney said Judge Stewart’s order cleared the way to ship before April 21.

“The main thing is this provides a judge’s clarification of what the first judge said,” said Michael Bowers, Bland’s attorney. “The judge today did not give us what we asked for because he said we already had it.”

Judge Stewart’s decision states he dismissed Bland’s case because of the pending appeal. The decision also states twice that Judge Wright’s ruling included an injunction barring the commissioner from enforcing the new rule.