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For additional background, please see "Hearing set in vidalia onion start date debate"
Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black (left) contends he can enforce a new, later start date for Vidalia onions going to retailers this year, despite a court order in favor of Delbert Bland (right) that ruled the new start date invalaid. (UPDATED COVERAGE, April 3) Despite a judge’s ruling that he is outside his authority, the Georgia agriculture commissioner says he will enforce a new, later start date for shipping Vidalia onions this season.
The Agriculture Department sent a reminder to Vidalia onion producers March 28. It states Commissioner Gary Black’s new rule setting the Monday of the last full week of April as the official start date — April 21 this year — is in full effect.
Georgia law allows for anyone violating the rule to be fined up to $5,000 for every day of violation, not to exceed $20,000.
Delbert Bland, owner and president of Bland Farms, Glennville, Ga., challenged the rule, which went into effect in August 2013 following more than 18 months of public hearings and grower meetings.
Judge Cynthia Wright of Fulton County Superior Court, Atlanta, ruled that Black’s “new rules exceed the scope of the authority of (statutes) upon which they are predicated and as such they are invalid.”
Black, represented by the Georgia Attorney General’s office, is appealing.
The attorney general’s office contends the appeal means everything is on hold — with the new rule in effect — until the appellate court issues an order, said David Gunter, legal services manager for the ag department.
Bland’s attorney contends the ruling granted a permanent injunction barring Black from enforcing the new rule, even though Judge Wright’s order does not specifically address the injunction.
“I’ve never known of a situation where a judge has issued a ruling that something is invalid and people go ahead and do it anyway,” Bland said March 31.
He said his attorney had a 3 p.m. meeting scheduled that day with Judge Wright to discuss the situation. However, the judge cancelled that meeting because the appeals court has jurisdiction.
Meanwhile, many other growers are supporting the commissioner’s new rule, as they have since before it went into effect.
Bob Stafford, general manager of the Vidalia Onion Business Council, said the vast majority of Vidalia onion growers are in favor of the commissioner’s rule change, saying they have been concerned about the quality of early Vidalia onions shipped in recent years.
“We asked him to take action to help us protect the reputation and value of the crop,” Stafford said March 31.
Among those growers was Bo Herndon, chairman of the Vidalia onion advisory panel that was charged under the previous start rule with annually recommending to the commissioner when the crop overall was ready to head to retailers.
Herndon has repeatedly said he is behind the commissioner 100% regarding the new, later start date.