Delbert Bland of Glennville, who grows onions on roughly 3,000 acres in southeast Georgia, has been waging a legal battle since last fall with Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black. Their dispute revolves around a rule adopted with the backing of many farmers seeking to keep unripe Vidalia onions from reaching store shelves.
An Atlanta judge last month struck down the regulation, which says no Vidalia onions can be packed for shipping before the last full week in April. However, Black has warned growers that the rule remains in effect while the state appeals.
"Customers are going to get good sweet, Vidalia onions and get them before next week," said Bland, adding the first truckloads of onions left his farm Wednesday afternoon.
His decision is somewhat of a gamble. A judge in Bland's home turf of Tattnall County refused Tuesday to block the agriculture commissioner from enforcing the new onion regulation. But Bland's attorneys say the judge's written order contains language supporting their position that the commissioner would violate the original Atlanta judge's order if he tries to sanction Bland for shipping onions a few days early.
Farmers who violate state laws and regulations governing how Vidalia onions are grown and marketed can be fined up to $5,000 per box or bag of onions. They can also lose the license allowing them to sell onions under the Vidalia brand, which is a state trademark.
The Vidalia onion crop is worth $150 million to Georgia farmers and state law limits the growth of Vidalias to a 20-county region. While an official start date for shipping is nothing new, in the past farmers have been allowed to send onions to market early if the crop receives a U.S. 1 grade from federal inspectors. The new packing regulation aims to essentially end that practice.
Bland said a state agriculture official was at his farm Wednesday to observe shipments being prepared. He said the official told him that he would face no immediate sanctions.
"He told me they were not going to do anything until after the appeal," Bland said.
Mary Kathryn Yaerta, a spokeswoman for the agriculture commissioner, said in an email Wednesday that any action taken against Bland would follow a typical administrative process.
"Once we receive the information and know the circumstance, we will take the appropriate steps," she said.