Bland Farms LLC of Glennville, GA, the nation’s largest sweet onion grower and shipper, is appealing the decision of a Georgia appeals court that says Georgia’s agriculture commissioner has the power to set packing and shipping dates for Vidalia onions, overturning a lower court that sided with Bland.
A three-judge panel of the Georgia Court of Appeals issued a unanimous opinion June 30 stating repeatedly that “all authority to regulate packing and shipping rests with the commissioner.”
The case was filed in the fall of 2013, shortly after Commissioner Gary Black put a new shipping rule into effect.
Black said Vidalia growers sought his help to protect the reputation and value of the state’s trademarked onions after consumer and retailer complaints in 2012 and 2013.
About a dozen growers filed a brief with the appeals court supporting Black. They said they asked for the rule because a minority of growers, seeking to be first to market, had been shipping early, although legally. Their brief said early-variety, poor quality onions with short shelf life had sent retailers and consumers to other sources for sweet onions.
Bland Farms opposed the rule, saying only individual growers know when any given field of onions is ready to harvest.
Bland Farms’ legal challenge claimed Black violated the state’s Vidalia Onion Act with the new rule. Such changes would require legislative action, according to Bland Farms’ complaint. The appeals judges said that argument was “misguided.”
“The Act does not afford growers statutory rights with regard to shipping or packing. Rather, the Act gives the commissioner both the authority to determine and announce a shipping date and the authority to promulgate a rule or regulation for packing,” according to the opinion.
The appeal judges noted Black had considered increasing inspections instead of imposing the new rule, which sets Monday of the last full week in April as the shipping start for Vidalia onions. The rule has a provision for the commissioner to change that date at the request of growers in the event of special conditions.