REIDSVILLE, Ga. (AP) — A Georgia judge Tuesday refused to intervene in a legal battle between a prominent Vidalia onion farmer and the state's agriculture commissioner over a new regulation aimed at keeping unripe onions from reaching store shelves.
Following a hearing in rural Tattnall County, part of the 20-county region where the famously sweet onions are grown, Superior Court Judge Jay Stewart denied a request by farmer Delbert Bland to stop the commissioner from enforcing the new rule prohibiting Vidalia onions from being packed for shipping before the last full week of April. An Atlanta judge struck down the regulation last month, but Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black says it's still in effect while state attorneys file an appeal.
The court fight has pit Bland, who has roughly 3,000 acres invested in Vidalia onions, against Black as well as fellow farmers who fear onions being rushed to market are hurting the brand's reputation. Vidalia onion sales are estimated to be worth $150 million a year.
Black has been warning growers not to ship onions before next Monday, but Bland has already begun having his crop packed in boxes and graded by federal inspectors this week. Despite the judge's ruling Tuesday, Bland said he planned to start shipping onions to supermarkets Wednesday.
"I'm shipping the onions because they're mature and they're excellent quality and they're ready to be shipped," Bland said. "We don't feel like it's fair that the government dictates what day we can ship the onions."
A spokeswoman for the agriculture commissioner, Mary Kathryn Yearta, praised the judge's decision Tuesday and said, "we look forward to continuing the discussions regarding the Vidalia onion pack date in appellate court."
The judge Tuesday said if Bland wants to stop the agriculture commissioner, the proper legal route would be to return to the Atlanta court and ask the previous judge to find Black in contempt of court. Bland's attorneys said they were also encouraged by language in Stewart's decision that seemed to acknowledge the Atlanta judge had already granted an injunction in the case.
"We didn't get exactly what we wanted, but given the language of the judge's order I'm not displeased at all," said Mike Bowers, the former Georgia attorney general who represented Bland. "It means the state had best be careful trying to enforce this invalid rule against my client."
In prior years, Vidalia onion farmers have been allowed to ship onions earlier than the official start date if federal inspectors gave them a U.S. 1 grade. The new packing rule essentially ends that practice. If the commissioner is allowed to enforce it, Bland could face fines of up to $5,000 per box or bag of onions and lose his license to label his crops as Vidalia onions, a trademark owned by the state of Georgia.
Walt Dasher was among about two dozen Vidalia onion farmers who attended the court hearing Tuesday. He said early shipments of unripe onions last year was such a problem that supermarkets complained of customers returning them for refunds.
"When somebody purchases our onions in a store, it's got to be the quality we're known for," Dasher said. "We've got a good thing and we don't want to mess it up."