REIDSVILLE, Ga. - One of Georgia's most prominent growers of sweet Vidalia onions asked a judge Tuesday to protect him from possible sanctions by state agriculture officials as he prepares to ship his crop to grocery stores ahead of the official start date imposed by a new regulation aimed at keeping unripe onions off the market.
Delbert Bland, who grows onions on about 3,000 acres in southeast Georgia, is fighting both Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black and many of his fellow farmers who say onions are being shipped before they meet the high standard worthy of being labeled Vidalias. Bland insists he knows best when his crop is ready for market.
Bland won the first round of his legal battle in March when a new rule saying Vidalia onions can't be packed for shipping before the last full week of April was struck down in March by an Atlanta judge. However, the commissioner has told farmers he still plans to enforce the rule while the state appeals. That means he expects no Vidalia onions to be shipped before next Monday.
Bland's lawyer, former state Attorney General Mike Bowers, went to court Tuesday in the farmer's home turf of Tattnall County to ask a judge to halt any enforcement of the regulation until the appeal is resolved. He said Bland is already boxing onions and plans to ship them Wednesday.
"We have been threatened, 'If you don't follow this rule that was held invalid, you are doing so at your own risk,'" Bowers said.
Elizabeth Monyak, the state attorney representing Black, said the commissioner had sent notices "simply advising" growers that he still considers the rule to be in effect.
"The majority of growers support the rule," Monyak said. "They believe it will improve the quality of the Vidalia onion."
Superior Court Judge Jay Stewart said he planned to rule later Tuesday.
Growing Vidalia onions is restricted by state law to a 20-county region in southeast Georgia, and the crop has been valued at about $150 million per year. Previously, onion farmers were allowed to ship onions earlier than the official start date if federal inspectors gave them a U.S. 1 grade.
If the commissioner is allowed to enforce the new packing rule, 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.
"Of course it worries me," Bland said Tuesday. "As far as I'm concerned, the (Atlanta) judge said we can pack onions. And we've started packing them."
Walt Dasher was among about two dozen Vidalia onion farmers watching from the courtroom gallery 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."