BlandDespite a warning from the state’s Attorney General’s office, Delbert Bland plans to ship Vidalia onions April 16, five days before the new start date set by Agricultural Commissioner Gary Black.
“I just packed a pallet and had the USDA inspector look at it and it passed,” Bland said April 14. “I’m not shipping until Wednesday.”
Officials with the Georgia Attorney General’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Vidalia onion growers and shippers are subject to state laws that carry possible fines of up to $20,000 if violated. Black’s new rule calls for shipping to start on the Monday of the last full week in April every year, which is April 21 this year.
Bland notified the attorney general’s office April 11 that he intended to begin “packing Vidalia onions in Tattnall County for shipment at approximately 3 p.m. EDT April 14.”
BlackAssistant Attorney General Elizabeth Monyak replied the same day, stating in a letter that the new rule is in effect — even though a Fulton County Superior Court state judge ruled it invalid in March — because the state filed a notice of appeal.
“If your client nevertheless chooses to willfully violate this regulation by packing Vidalia onions on Monday, … it does so at its own risk with respect to the future consequences of such a knowing violation of the regulations,” according to Monyak’s letter.
Bland contends the March 19 ruling from the state judge in Fulton County included approval of Bland’s request for an injunction to stop the state from enforcing the new date.
However, because the state contends its appeal of the Fulton County ruling puts everything on hold, Bland asked the state court in his home county of Tattnall on April 11 to issue an injunction to stop enforcement of the new start date. A hearing is set April 15 on that request.
An attorney representing Bland said he is hopeful Judge D. Jay Stewart will issue a ruling then because of the tight timeline in the case. Bland is the only grower-shipper involved in the court challenge to the rule.
Many certified Vidalia onion growers are in favor of the new, later start date. Bob Stafford, general manager of the Vidalia Onion Business Council has said a majority of growers asked the state’s agriculture commissioner to take action.
Stafford and grower L.G. “Bo” Herndon Jr. said retailer and consumer complaints the past three years spurred the Vidalia growers to seek Black’s assistance. Complaints involved immature onions, they said, and they sought action to protect their industry’s reputation.
“I’m absolutely not trying to ship immature onions,” Bland said April 14. “I just want to ship them as soon as they are mature. We plant earlier than some other growers … it boils down to some growers who don’t have onions ready not wanting anyone else to ship before they do.”