Vidalia onion start date case appeal set for argumentsThe Georgia agriculture department and Bland Farms LLC are set to argue a case regarding the start date for Vidalia onions before the Georgia Court of Appeals in January.

A Jan. 14 hearing before three of the court’s 12 judges is on the calendar on the court’s website as a “tentative” date for the hearing.

At issue is whether Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black has the authority to impose a rule setting a “packing date” for the trademarked and regulated Vidalia onions. The rule sets the annual “packing date” as “Monday of the last week of April.” The rule states the state’s official vegetable “shall not be packed or put into commerce” before that date.

Black’s new rule went into effect in 2013 for the 2014 shipping season. He and many growers who support the rule have said it is needed to keep immature Vidalias out of the stream of commerce to protect the reputation of the vegetable and the $100 million in gross sales it generates annually.

Delbert Bland, owner of Bland Farms, Glennville, Ga., challenged the rule in Atlanta’s Superior Court in Fulton County. The judge on that case ruled Black’s law invalid in March 2013. The Georgia attorney general immediately filed an appeal on behalf of the agriculture department and Black.

In its appeal brief, dated Sept. 10, the state repeats an argument from the initial trial, stating the case should be thrown out because Georgia has sovereign immunity from lawsuits. The attorney general and Black also contend Bland is wrong in his assertion that the rule contradicts state statutes governing Vidalia onions.

Bland’s attorney argues in court documents that the rule amounts to an “illegal scheme” because state statutes do not give Black the authority to set a shipping start date. Bland contends only the Georgia General Assembly can change the “shipping date” because it is set by state law.

The statute does give the agriculture commissioner to set a ship date, at the recommendation of the Vidalia Advisory Council, but does not give permission for the commissioner to set a “pack date,” according to court documents.

Bland contends by banning the packing of Vidalia onions until a certain date the commissioner is in effect setting a start date illegally.