(UPDATED COVERAGE 2:12 p.m.) Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black is set to face off with Vidalia onion grower Delbert Bland in the state"s Court of Appeals on Jan. 14 as their attorneys present oral arguments on whether the commissioner can change when the state"s trademarked onions can be packed and shipped.
Last year a Fulton County Superior Court judge in Atlanta sided with Bland, owner of Bland Farms LLC, Glennville, Ga. Bland wants the start date left as it was, with growers being able to pay for special inspections to ship earlier than the official date, which was set every year by the commissioner depending on crop conditions and other factors.
In response to many growers" concerns about immature and lower-quality Vidalia onions being marketed, the commissioner penned a new regulation setting the start date as the Monday of the last full week of April every year.
State officials have declined to comment while the case is pending.
Some of the growers who asked Black in 2013 to address concerns about immature Vidalia onions being shipped filed a brief with the appeals court on Jan. 9, again voicing support for the ag commissioner. They collectively grow about 5,000 acres of the 12,000 acres of registered Vidalia fields. Bland owns and contracts for about 3,000 acres, giving him control of about a fourth of the $100-million crop.
"The commissioner responded to long-standing quality issues in the marketplace by doing exactly what the law both authorizes and requires him to do. He initiated a formal rulemaking process, and after receiving public and industry comments and conducting thorough deliberations, took necessary regulatory actions to address the quality problems," according to the brief filed by the other Vidalia growers.
"The thanks he gets for doing his job is the present lawsuit brought by a large onion producer ..., which seeks to place short-term interests in selling early immature onions ahead of the long-term interests in preserving, protecting, and growing the brand and trademark of our official state vegetable."
The growers who signed and filed the "friend of the court" brief are:
- Braddy Farms Inc.
- Deep South Farms Inc.
- G& R Farms
- Hendrix Produce Inc.
- L.G. Herndon Jr. Farms
- McLain Farms Inc.
- M& T Farms Inc.
- Robinson Farms
- Shuman Produce Inc.
- Sikes Farms LLC and
- Smith Farms.
The growers" brief quotes remarks made at a July 2013 public meeting by long-time vidalia grower Robert Dasher, co-owner of Glennville-based G& R Farms.
"What"s been hitting the market early in the past few years has not been the true Vidalia onion," Dasher said according to the growers" brief.
Dasher"s comments also referenced that some growers are intentionally planting varieties that appear to mature early and then further rushing them by not allowing them to cure long enough in the fields and not drying them long enough before shipping.
"If somebody wants to grow onions and sell onions and wants to put that junk on the market, put it under their name, not under the Vidalia name," Dasher said according to the growers" brief.
Shuman Produce, Reidsville, made similar comments that are quoted in the growers" brief.
"As an industry, we need to set aside our personal desires and empower the Commissioner to strengthen the Vidalia onion brand that has become an icon of Georgia agriculture recognized throughout the country and the world," Shuman Produce officials said, according to the court document.
The growers" brief also quotes comments made by the agriculture commissioner in 2013 when he was meeting with growers.
"The department has in the past few years received a large number of complaints from consumers unhappy with the quality of Vidalia onions on the store"s shelves. The number of complaints were sufficient to warrant concern and subsequent action by the department," Black said, according to the court document.
Bland has repeatedly said that he only harvests and ships mature, top-quality Vidalia onions. He contends that Mother Nature, not the agriculture commissioner or a calendar, determines when onions are ready.