Bitter court feud rages over sweet Vidalia onions

The Associated PressApril 15, 2014 

VIDALIA ONIONS

This undated photo released by the Vidalia Onion Committee on Wednesday, April 6, 2005, shows a bowl of Vidalia onions. Georgia has set the first-ever opening date for the Vidalia onion season, a move aimed at maintaining high quality and consumer confidence in a $75 million crop. Tommy Irvin, Georgia's agriculture commissioner, announced that the official 2005 Vidalia onion marketing season will begin on April 28, 2005, a couple of weeks later than the usual start, which until now had been unregulated.

VIDALIA ONION COMMITTEE — ASSOCIATED PRESS

— No Vidalia onion will be harvested before its time. So says the agricultural commissioner who claims farmers should face fines for shipping one of Georgia’s premier crops too early, potentially threatening their renowned sweet, delectable taste.

But one of the state’s most prominent farmers is going to court to fight the new rules, claiming the commissioner is overstepping his bounds, and that onions are being shipped only when they’re ready and only after federal inspectors give the high sign.

Gary Black, the state’s Republican agriculture commissioner, says early sales of unripe onions are threatening the Vidalia’s reputation as a rare onion that’s so sweet it can be eaten raw like an apple.

Black spent the past 18 months working with farmers on a new rule that prohibits packaging Vidalia onions for shipping before the last full week of April.

A judge in Atlanta struck down the rule last month, saying Black overstepped his authority trying to protect the $150 million-a-year onion crop.

Still, the commissioner says he plans to enforce the restriction while the state appeals.

Any farmer who ships onions before the official start date next Monday faces fines of up to $5,000 per bag or box, and could be banned from selling onions under the Vidalia trademark in the future

As a grower with roughly 3,000 acres invested in Vidalia onions, Delbert Bland insists his three decades in the business make him – and not the agriculture commissioner or other farmers – the best judge of when his onions are ready to come out of the ground. He won the first round of court battles with help from Atlanta attorney Mike Bowers, Georgia’s former attorney general.

Now, they’re scheduled to return to court Tuesday on Bland’s home turf of Tattnall County, where Bland is asking a judge to stop Black from enforcing the packaging date until the appeals get resolved.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and I’ve tried to be respectful and nice about it,” Bland said Monday. “But he’s gone way beyond his duties as commissioner of agriculture.”

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