VIDALIA, Ga. — Bob Stafford thought he was signing on for a 10-day gig when he walked into the Vidalia Onion Business Council offices in 1994. He’s still there.
“It will be my 20th anniversary here on April 20,” Stafford said. “I came in to help them write a compliance plan and never got away.”
Before joining the business council, Stafford was a fruit and vegetable inspector for the Florida Agriculture Department. He worked at the department for 34 years.
As general manager for the Vidalia Onion Business Council, Stafford serves as a liaison between growers and the state’s agriculture department. He is also among those who protect the trademark status of Georgia’s official state vegetable.
“Everyone else who grows sweet onions is trying to imitate the Vidalia onion,” Stafford said.
In his time with the council he has rooted out imposters, ranging from relatively nearby growers whose fields are outside of the officially designated Vidalia onion growing counties in central Georgia to large operations off shore.
In 2001 Stafford discovered that Fresh Del Monte Produce Inc., Coral Gables, Fla., was marketing sweet onions from Peru as Vidalia onions. The state of Georgia fined Del Monte $400,000 but the company only had to pay $100,000 because the balance of the fine was suspended.
Stafford is working with second- and third-generation Vidalia onion growers at this point, having worked with many of the growers’ fathers and grandfathers earlier in his career.
Delbert Bland, who owns and contracts for about one-third of the 12,600 acres of Vidalia onions in Georgia as president of Bland Farms, Glennville, Ga., said Stafford always has the future of the industry top of mind.
“His main forte is enforcing the rules,” Bland said. “He is our first line of defense to protect our Vidalia onions and he does a good job.”