Late last week, a judge ruled that Ag. Commissioner Gary Black cannot set a packaging date for Georgia’s Vidalia onions while the case is in Appeals Court, indicating yet another blow to Black’s argument and case as a whole against Glennville Vidalia onion farmer Delbert Bland. The judge noted that Black had “exceeded his power.”
The case, spawned last year over Bland’s failure to abide by Commissioner Black’s packaging date regulation, has been an ongoing legal battle since Delbert Bland challenged the regulation in court. He won in Fulton County Superior Court last year and now Black is appealing.
The issue has largely divided not only the Vidalia onion community but Georgia farmers as a whole bringing into question whether or not anyone has the authority to determine when a farmer can or cannot package and then sell goods.
The Commissioner’s office argues that it’s an effort to protect the brand, claiming that Vidalia onions are a token of Georgia culture and it is in the best interest of the state to protect the brand and not allow onions to be sold too early. He has also cited legislative direction that allows him some leeway in regulating the market without any check or approval.
Bland, on the other hand, says that he is skilled in his efforts to harvest onions and knows better than an arbitrary date whether or not the onions are ready to be sold. He also notes that if ‘Bland Onions’ are lousy, people simply won’t buy them anymore and he would not risk that. He currently controls roughly 1/4 of the $100 -million crop share in Georgia.
Over the course of the legal battle, speculation has swirled that Black is trying to protect some of his larger Vidalia onion donors in the state who cannot produce onions in the same time period, and as Bland has noted, have never had their onions ready “early.” Many argue that this has more to do with ‘leveling the playing field’ than protecting the brand.
The good news, however, is that the pending legal issues will not affect our Vidalia onion farmers in the upcoming season and goods be harvested and packaged as farmers see fit. Unless the Appeals Court comes down with a ruling against Delbert Bland.