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.
“I guess we’ll have to get together pretty soon,” Herndon said. “At least 90% of the growers wanted this change. We’ve got some integrity in these onions and we need to protect that.”
Grower Delbert Bland, owner of Bland Farms, Glennville, Ga., filed the lawsuit challenging the new rule. His company owns and has contracts for about a fourth of the 12,600 acres planted with the trademarked Vidalia onions, which are regulated by Georgia law as well as a federal marketing order.
“Mother Nature will decide when our Vidalia sweet onions are ready to ship, not an arbitrary date on the calendar,” Bland said after the ruling. “I’m glad that we’ll be able to ship our onions on the normal timetable and our customers can expect that.”
Bland, and several other growers, often shipped their Vidalia onions earlier than the official start date suggested by the advisory panel because the rules allow for that as long as a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector approves them.
The rule change sought by Black did include a provision for him to alter the start date based on crop maturity and other factors, but did not allow for early shipping by individual growers.
Growers and shippers who supported the change in the rule included Kevin Hendrix, vice president of Hendrix Produce and chairman of the Vidalia Onion Committee; Brett McLain, McLain Farms; Walt and Robert Dasher, G & R Farms; John and Mark Shuman, Shuman Produce Inc.; and Brian Stanley, Stanley Farms; Barbara Braddy, Braddy Farms; Steve Roberson, Roberson Onion Co.; and Alan Sikes, owner of Sikes Farms.
Growers and shippers opposed to the new rule included brothers Timothy and Jerry Pittman, Pittman Family Farms, whose onions are marketed by Bland Farms, and Joey Johnson, sales manager for J&S Produce Inc.