(April 15) VIDALIA, Ga. — Shippers here don’t want to sour their sweet onion deal, known far and wide by consumers. They successfully established Vidalias as a trademark sweet onion.

Eager to keep “hot,” or pungent, onions off the market and to maintain demand for their product, they’ve worked with the state to limit the number of varieties that can bear the name.

This season, they’ve also supported a quality control program in which federal inspectors will be present at all certified packinghouses.

So when one of their own allegedly got unapproved varieties of onions packed under the Vidalia name — and in the process beat all his competitors to the marketplace — fellow shippers felt betrayed.

“It sure looks like there’s a rat in the woodpile,” said Delbert Bland, president of Bland Farms, Reidsville, Ga.

The shipper in question, Ronny Collins, chief executive officer of Plantation Sweets in nearby Cobbtown, Ga., said he’s proved in court he didn’t use unauthorized varieties.

UNIFORM OPENING DATES

Collins also said he would support what may be the end result of the controversy: uniform opening dates being established for future Vidalia sweet onion seasons.

“It is our hope that we can now put this issue to rest and continue our role as a leader and supporter for higher and stricter standards to enhance the Vidalia reputation,” Collins said in a separate written statement.

Bland said he leads the Vidalia deal in acreage, with 1,800 acres this season. Plantation Sweets ranks second. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has estimated total plantings this season at 14,200 acres. The final official estimate from the Vidalia Onion Committee rests at 14,030.

In late March, Tommy Irvin, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Agriculture, began an investigation of seed sources for the industry. Eventually, he decided to delay issuing licenses for use of the Vidalia name until April 15.

On April 8, Collins won a court order allowing his company to proceed. In his handwritten order, Judge Jerry Baxter of the Superior Court of Fulton County, Ga., said Irvin and the department of agriculture were “prevented from interfering with plaintiffs’ packing and marketing their onions as Vidalia onions.”

RETROACTIVE LICENSE

An amendment April 10 ordered that the department and Irvin retroactively issue Collins a license to use the Vidalia name for his onions as of April 8.

That left Collins alone on the earliest markets. Early shipments for Vidalia onions usually start at f.o.b.s around $16-20 per 40-pound carton, shippers say.

Plantation Sweets, which sells its onions through an exclusive marketing agreement with Keystone Fruit Marketing Inc., Greencastle, Pa., could get even higher prices early in the game, Bland said.

Kurt Schweitzer, owner of Keystone, declined comment.

Another shipper also tried to start before the April 15 date but was stopped by the state, Irvin said.

Jason Turner, sales manager for Bland Farms, identified the other shipper as Billy Williamson, owner of Classic Vidalia, Lyons, Ga.

Williamson declined comment. The Vidalia deal has 123 growers this season, said Bob Stafford, manager of the Vidalia Onion Business Council. Though remaining growers could harvest and place their onions in bins anytime, they still were prohibited by the department of agriculture from packing until their licenses arrived April 15.

Collins started packing April 9, Stafford said.

After a meeting the night of April 10, the business council issued a statement supporting Irvin’s decision delaying the licenses. Irvin’s decision, the statement read, was made “in the best interest of the industry to ensure the quality and integrity of the Vidalia onion crop.”

In his release, Collins said he and his company took action to prove they had planted only varieties approved by the state department of agriculture. Collins declined to say what varieties were included in the early shipments.

Rick Berry, president of Oconee River Produce Inc., Mount Vernon, Ga., said industry talk was that Collins claimed to have used the 1519 sweet onion variety.

But Berry reported discrepancies in the claim. He said he talked to other growers who planted the 1519 variety this season and was told that variety fared the worst of all in quality this season. Meanwhile, industry talk is that Collins’ alleged 1519s were in nice shape and free of disease.

Berry also said he heard Collins’ onions had a definite bite, such as those linked to Japanese heritage, unlike true Vidalia onions.

HARD TO PROVE

The trouble with the case against Collins is proving it. Though federal inspectors will grade onions for quality this season, they can’t identify them by variety, Stafford said.

Both Bland and Turner attended Collins’ April 9 court date. Bland said Collins testified that his onions were running above pungency levels of 5 out of 10. Meanwhile, true Vidalias usually run in the 2-to-3 range, he said.

While the industry understands the talk well, Irvin’s defense attorney, supplied by the Georgia Attorney General’s office, didn’t, Bland said. Judge Baxter also doesn’t have any experience growing onions, Bland noted.

“If I knew what I know now, and all these growers would have, we would have carried a car full of lawyers up to Atlanta instead of just riding up there,” Bland said. Even more, there’s been no precedent established for handling a case like this, he said.

What the judge may have understood better was the urgency of the early deal. Collins cited the names of chain store buyers eager to receive the onions, Bland said.

Shippers say the irony of the situation is that Collins had been among those leading the industry’s fight against early onions that compromised the Vidalia name.

Devory Dowdy, owner of Dowdy Farms, Reidsville, said some of the same growers and shippers who’ve voted out early varieties for the Vidalia deal now want to use them.

“They’re dealing from the bottom of the deck,” Dowdy said.

For now, the state department of agriculture is continuing its investigation into seed sources. Collins said he has nothing to hide and that he doesn’t have any seed that was purchased by anyone other than himself.

“All that was proven in court,” he said.