ATLANTA Nov 12 Georgia's famed Vidalia onions
are sweet and so are the sales, with the brand that retails
nationwide generating $150 million annually.
But a new state rule that delays the onion's shipping date
has hit a sour note with some farmers who deem the timing
arbitrary for a crop that has the distinction of being grown in
only 20 south Georgia counties.
One unhappy farmer, the country's largest Vidalia onion
grower, is fighting back with a lawsuit.
"That absolutely will not fly," said Delbert Bland, a
Tattnall County farmer who produces more than a third of the
Vidalia onion crop. "You can't project when an onion is going to
Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black has pushed back
next spring's shipping date by several weeks to late April,
arguing that the quality and appearance of the onions has been
sacrificed over the last several years by rushing them to market
The state owns the Vidalia onion trademark and has to
protect the brand, Black said.
"Vidalias are a premium product," he said. "We have a
responsibility to make sure consumers are getting what they're
Southeast Georgia farmers in search of a new cash crop began
growing onions in the 1930s and discovered the low-sulphur soil
and weather conditions in the region produced a mild, sweet
onion, according to the Vidalia Onion Committee, an industry
As word of the onion's sweetness spread, the crop was picked
up by a local grocery store chain and eventually sold around the
Shipping normally runs from mid-April to early fall, with
many of the onions preserved in controlled-atmosphere storage
after they are harvested, according to the Vidalia Onion
Committee. Sweet onions available in the off-season are not
This year, after some onions were shipped during the first
week of April, the quality was so bad that one northern grocery
store chain told a Georgia grower not to bother sending anymore,
Bob Stafford, director of the Vidalia Onion Business
Council, another growers' organization, said some farmers
requested assistance from the state in improving onion quality
and helped craft the new shipping date rule.
"The majority of the farmers are in favor of this," Stafford
The rule allows changes in the shipping date due to unusual
weather conditions, Black noted.
Bland disagrees that the most recent crop suffered any
quality issues due to early shipping. He contends that onions
shipped early this year were better in appearance than those
shipped later because a cold snap in April damaged some of the
crop that had not yet been harvested.
He has hired a high-powered attorney, former Georgia
Attorney General Michael Bowers, and is challenging the state
order with a lawsuit that questions Black's authority to delay
the shipping date.
Previously, an advisory panel of farmers recommended a date
based on weather and other factors each year, and the state
typically approved the recommendation, Bland said.
More stringent inspection standards before the onions go to
market are key to ensuring crop quality, he said.
"We have as much as $10,000 an acre invested in that crop
before we pack it," he said. "And you're going to tell a guy to
leave it in the field two more weeks just to make sure everyone
else is ready, too?"
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and John Wallace)