Judge: Ag chief erred on onions

Vidalia harvest date can’t be set by official. Ruling comes in suit by farming business against department.

By Christopher Seward

State Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black overstepped his authority when he changed rules last year to give himself the authority to determine when the state’s prized Vidalia Sweet Onion crop can be harvested and shipped, a judge ruled last week.

Judge Cynthia Wright, of the Superior Court of Fulton County, ruled state law gives Black the authority to determine packing rules, such as the materials or containers that can be used in packaging, but not to decide when the onions can be shipped.

“We have received the ruling and the (state) attorney general is reviewing the court’s order,” said Mary Yearta, the commissioner’s spokeswoman.

Delbert Bland, owner of Bland Farms, sued Black and his department, arguing state law did not give him the authority to establish shipping dates for the Vidalia onion.

In a statement, Bland said the ruling means “Mother Nature will decide when our Vidalia Sweet Onions are ready to ship, not an arbitrary date on the calendar.” Bland’s lawyer, Mike Bowers, later said Bland Farms “is extremely pleased with the order.”

To combat fears that Vidalia onions were not as sweet as they should be and to address other quality concerns possibly due to premature harvesting, Black last August mandated the last week of April as the earliest the onion may be harvested and packed, giving the crop 10 to 15 additional days in ground to improve its quality.

The onion, which is protected by a federal trademark and state law, is known for its signature wide, flat shape and sweetness when eaten raw. The crop is grown in a 20-county region and has an estimated $150 million annual economic impact.

Before Black changed the rules, growers could ship their crop if the onions carried a federal-state inspection certificate certifying the onions had met established grade requirements. Bland Farms had regularly shipped its onions with such a stamp of approval.

The judge ruled Black sidestepped the state Legislature when he gave himself the authority to establish a shipping date and was “not authorized to enlarge the scope” of the state law that determined his oversight.

Staff writer Bill Rankin contributed to this article.