click image to zoomCoral BeachThis field of Vidalia onions near Lyons, Ga., was among the most mature in the area as of March 7. A ruling from a Georgia judge means some retailers may not have to wait until after April 21 for Vidalia onions this year.
The ruling allows one Vidalia onion grower to prevail over Georgia Agricultural Commissioner Gary Black and many other growers who support the commissioner in a lawsuit regarding whether Black had the authority to impose a mandatory start date for the shipping of Vidalia onions.
Judge Cynthia Wright of the Superior Court of Fulton County in Atlanta ruled March 19 that the commissioner exceeded his authority last year when he issued a new rule that forbid growers from shipping Vidalia onions before the Monday of the last full week in April. For this year, that date is April 21.
“(The commissioner’s) desire to regulate Vidalia onions to further the goal of preventing premature harvesting is certainly commendable,” Judge Wright wrote in her ruling.
"However, to reach this end, defendants are not authorized to ‘enlarge the scope of’ (the statute), to ‘change this statute by interpretation,’ or to ‘establish different standards’ than those set forth within this statute without the involvement of the legislature.”
A number of growers and Bob Stafford, general manager of the Vidalia Onion Business Council, had asked the commissioner to review and change the process because of what they described as immature and soft Vidalia onions being shipped in recent years.
“We are going to do everything we can to support the commissioner in his efforts to ensure that consumers get mature, firm Vidalia onions,” Stafford said March 20. “We asked him for his help and we will continue to help him in this effort.”
Stafford said there hadn’t been any word yet from Black’s office regarding how the beginning of the Vidalia season will be determined this year. The rule on the books requires the commissioner to appoint a Vidalia Onion Advisory Panel each year, which in turn advises him on the status of the crop overall and suggests a date for the beginning of shipments.
Black did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the ruling. The Georgia Attorney General, who defended Black in the lawsuit, said he could not comment on pending litigation. The status of possible appeals was not known as of March 20.
Grower L.G. “Bo” Herndon Jr., chairman of the advisory panel, has been on the record as supporting the commissioner’s new rule. Herndon said March 20 that he had not yet heard from Black’s office regarding the panel recommendation for this year.