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Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - 10:18am

Wait 6 Days To Harvest Onions? Not If This Vidalia Farmer Can Help It

UPDATE (Wednesday 5:06 p.m.):

A prominent Vidalia onion farmer says he's packing and shipping onions Wednesday, regardless of what Georgia's agriculture commissioner may say.

Delbert Bland is battling Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black in Fulton County court over whether the state has the authority to tell growers when to pack onions.

Speaking by phone to GPB Wednesday, Bland says he believes a court victory gives him the go-ahead to ship onions. Bland sued the commissioner, and a Fulton County judge sided with him in March. That ruling is being appealed, but Bland says he believes he has the legal authority to pack now.

"We're shipping onions today, and we're shipping onions because they're mature and ready to ship," said Bland.

Commissioner Gary Black has appealed that decision and says the April 21 pack date is in effect.

A spokeswoman for the department says penalties for ignoring the rule could be as high as $5,000 per violation.

Bland says he will ask a judge to hold Black in contempt of court if the commissioner tries to enforce a packing date for onions farmers.

"If they try to issue fines against me, or do anything of that nature, I will go back to court in Atlanta."

UPDATE (Wednesday 10:57 a.m.):

A Georgia judge says he won't stop the state agriculture commissioner from enforcing a new regulation aimed at stopping unripe Vidalia onions from reaching store shelves.

Superior Court Judge Jay Stewart ruled Tuesday evening that he won’t stop state agriculture commissioner Gary Black from enforcing the rule which prevents Vidalia onion farmers from packing onions for shipping before the last full week of April.

Farmers who violate the rule could face a fine up to $1,000.

Vidalia onion farmer Delbert Bland in Glenville says much of his crop is ready and he still plans to pack and ship his onions Wednesday, despite the rule.

That’s contrary to a ruling from Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black. He’s told growers to wait until Monday, April 21 to pack. Black says immature onions are damaging the Vidalia brand.

But Bland says being the first to market is important for locking in deals with retailers.

The Glennville farmer says he can sell onions at a premium earlier in the season.

“And it’s not necessarily price, as much as it is market share,” said Bland.

Bland is challenging Gary Black’s ruling setting April 21 as the pack date. Many Vidalia growers are siding with Black, saying they think an official start to the season would improve the crop’s quality.

Bland disagrees. He says being the first to market is important for locking in deals with retailers.

“You can’t take and sit there and let them buy from somebody else for the first week or two and then expect them to drop that supplier and switch to you because you got onions.”

Bland sued the agricultural commissioner over the packing date issue, and a won a victory in Fulton County Court last month. The commissioner has appealed and is telling Vidalia farmers not to pack onions until Monday.

A Tattnall County judge is expected to weigh in Tuesday on whether Bland could face fines for continuing to pack onions.

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