VIDALIA, Ga. — A March 12 hearing is set on whether state agriculture commissioner Gary Black has the authority to tell Vidalia onion growers when they can start shipping their crop.
Previously, a grower committee recommended a start date to the commissioner based on the status of the crop. The commissioner then set the official date, but growers whose onions were ready earlier were allowed to pay for inspections by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If the onions passed muster, they could ship as early as they wanted.
Under the new rule, Vidalia onions cannot be shipped before Monday of the last full week in April each year. This year that is April 21.
Delbert Bland, president of Bland Farms LLC, Glennville, Ga., has filed a lawsuit objecting to the new rule.
“There’s no way you can dictate when an onion’s ready by a calendar, you’ve got to do it by Mother Nature,” Bland said March 6. “And this year Easter is April 20. There is always huge demand for Easter dinners.”
Growers can begin harvesting and curing before the new ship date. If they want to ship early, they can, but they can’t label the early shipments as Vidalia onions, said Bob Stafford, manager of the Vidalia Onion Business Council.
Bland said the mandatory start date will also cause logistics troubles.
“Can you imagine the problems getting trucks if everyone tries to start shipping the same day?” he said.
Bland contends the old system worked fine and allowed for weather differences across the 20-county region outlined in the Vidalia marketing order. He said many of the Bland Farms fields are in the southern parts of the region and he usually has mature onions earlier than the northern areas. Of the 12,600 Vidalia onion acres planted in 2013, Bland owned or had contracts for about 3,000 acres.
In response to Bland’s lawsuit, Georgia’s attorney general filed a request for dismissal, saying the state statute clearly gives the ag commissioner the authority to set the date.
Black said the new system should stand the judicial test because Vidalia growers asked him to intervene. Stafford and several growers said retailer and consumer complaints about the quality of early Vidalias in recent years spurred their request.
In 2013 Black and Stafford received early-season calls about soft onions that wouldn’t hold together when sliced.
Michael Hively, chief financial officer for Curry & Co., Brooks, Ore., and a partner in Sweet Vidalia Onions LLC, Collins, Ga., said the commissioner had to act. He said part of the problem is that inspection standards merely call for No. 1 grade onions to be “fairly firm.”
Several growers said Vidalia onions have to be more than fairly firm before they are shipped because of the nature of sweet onion flesh.
“I would have preferred tighter inspection standards, but at the end of the day, he is the commissioner and we respect that,” Hively said.
Tighter inspection standards are not an option, at least in the short term, Black said, because that would require state legislative action and involvement of the USDA because of the federal marketing order on Vidalia onions.
Black also considered adding inspectors, but when he ran the numbers he found that would have added $1 million in annual costs for producers, according to a letter he sent to growers.
Black said the months-long process preceding the change included three listening sessions and a public hearing. He said the process was completed early enough so growers could buy appropriate varieties of seed to meet the later start date. The new start date rule became law in August 2013.
“This is about maturity and shelf life,” Black said. “The objective is to get growers to choose varieties that come in with those qualities.”
Some growers said they had to ask the commissioner to act to protect their onions’ reputation.
“We were given the opportunity to self regulate and it didn’t work” John Shuman, president of Shuman Produce, said in November. “If there is a reason to start earlier, the rule has a clause for that.”
The clause, which Black also cited, states “The commissioner may, depending on crop conditions and with the recommendation of the Vidalia Onion Advisory Panel, specify a packing date other than the Monday of the last full week in April.”