The state of Georgia is currently experiencing one of its more highly contested court cases in quite some time. While the state has hosted important cases which affected the state of tribal sovereignty in the United States and the validity of capital punishment, this particular case may have the most widespread impact of any Georgia court case yet. The subject of contention, you ask? Onions. Vidalia Onions.
Georgia's largest Vidalia onion farmer, Delbert Bland, who grows 3,000 acres of Vidalia onions, has brought a suit against the state of Georgia's agriculture commissioner due to unnecessary and detrimental legislation against the packaging and sales of the onions.
Over the past 18 months, Georgia agricultural commissioner Gary Black has worked with Vidalia onion farmers in Georgia to decide when the onions should be allowed to be packed and shipped to market. The reason from the legislation results from a recent plague of farmers shipping the onions too soon, resulting in negative feedback from many customers.
"When somebody purchases our onions in a store, it's got to be the quality we're known for. We've got a good thing and we don't want to mess it up," stated Walt Dasher, a fellow Vidalia onion farmer.
The date Black and other farmers chose for the first allowable day on which to pack and ship the onions was the Monday of the last full week of April, which happens to be April 21 this year.
We couldn't be more excited…less than a week now until the start of Vidalia season on April 21!
— Vidalia Onions (@Vidaliaonions1) April 16, 2014
Bland, the world's largest Vidalia onion farmer, feels this rule is too limiting, however. "I'm shipping the onions because they're mature and they're excellent quality and they're ready to be shipped. We don't feel like it's fair that the government dictates what day we can ship the onions," stated Bland.
Last month, Bland took Black to court to overturn the ruling as to when the onions can go to market. Judge Jay Stewart ruled that Commissioner Black had overstepped his legal authority in his attempt to protect the onions from a bad reputation. Unfortunately for Bland, however, Black decided to appeal the decision, keeping the rule effective until the appeal process is over.
If Bland continues with his plan to ship the onions before the April 21 deadline, he could face a $5,000 fine for every box he has packed to ship and potentially lose his license to market his onions as Vidalia onions. With Bland traditionally sending 150,000 boxes out to market in the first week of the season, such a fine could bankrupt the world's largest Vidalia onion supplier.
"If you went through a lifetime to develop a product that people would want, who would lose the most if you shipped it immature? Onions are the type of commodity that, when they're mature and ready, you've got to harvest them. If you leave them in the field, they're going go bad," Bland explained.
Despite Bland's opposition to the decision, agricultural commissioner Black believes the ruling will be upheld: "We believe this is going to work. There may be some nuances that could be altered in the rule in the future, but our commitment to the growers was to help them solve this issue. We have a major responsibility to ensure the consumer can trust in that trademark."
Vidalia onions were first planted in Georgia in the 1930s during the Great Depression. They quickly rose to prominence due to their intensely sweet flavor and low "bite", perhaps due to the low amounts of sulfur in the soil in which they were grown. Vidalia onions were given a state legal status by Georgia in 1986. The Vidalia Onion Act of 1986 not only gave the state of Georgia a trademark to the Vidalia onion brand, but also limited the growth and production of the onions to a 20-county area in Georgia. The Vidalia onion would become the state vegetable of Georgia in 1990.
As it currently stands, the Vidalia onion market brings in $150 million of revenue to the state of Georgia each year. This fact, coupled with the onion's rich and vital history to the state of Georgia, makes the protection of such a product integral to many farmers and consumers in Georgia.
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