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Agribusiness

The Onion battle continues with dueling Attorney General's

By Lou Phelps, BrunswickBusinessJournal.com Staff

December 2. 2013 - Georgia’s Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black wants a lawsuit against the State of Georgia thrown out, brought because of changes he made this year to the annual start date for Vidalia onion shipments. A suit was brought by a local farmer. But, he's not an ordinary farmer. He's one of the largest growers in the state.  

Black contends that he has a great deal of support from the majority of growers of this critical Georgia product, an assertion supported by the State’s leading organization representing Vidalia onion growers.

Georgia Vidalia onions are reported to retail for $150 million annually, and are a significant part of the State's "Georgia Grown" program that supports the marketing of many Georgia products, from peanuts to honey.  

Most in the industry is still reeling from the 2012 crop, according to Black, where growers say historically higher-than-normal temperatures during the growing season spurred smaller sizes and the onset of a particularly virulent strain of downy mildew; the combination of which resulted in roughly one-third reductions in marketable yields.  Storage facilities last season remained largely un-filled, which resulted in a shortened season.

“It’s important to note that the growers asked the commissioner for help. He was invited to come to Vidalia to discuss ways to ensure the quality of the crop that is going to market,” Bob Stafford, who manages the Vidalia Onion Business Council and works with the Vidalia Onion Advisory Panel, told media.  A vote at the May 30 growers’ meeting was 11 to 1 in favor of the change, Stafford is reported as saying.

The state owns the Vidalia onion trademark and has to protect the brand, Black has stated.

But Delbert Bland, of Bland Farms in Glennville - who produces more than a third of the Vidalia onion crop - has filed a lawsuit challenging the change, contending that it is contrary to state statute. He told a Georgia media outlet, "That absolutely will not fly…You can't project when an onion is going to be mature. He is represented by Georgia’s former attorney general Michael Bowers.

The state’s response to Bland’s complaint was released last week. Black said the case should be thrown out because Bland failed to serve the Georgia attorney general with the complaint.

“In addition to the alleged failed service, the state contends Bland is wrong in his assertion that commissioner Gary Black does not have the authority to change the start date — now set on the Monday of the last full week in April every year,” reports TheGrower.com.

“We knew we had a serious problem this season when we couldn’t get the price back up,” Stafford said recently, referring to the pricing curve the trademarked sweet onions usually follow, according to TheGrower.com.

“Vidalias opened in April for $20 per 40-pound box, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. By late May jumbos and colossal hit $22, but in June, when prices should have reflected the height of the season, prices were $14-18 per box. Prices bottomed in mid-August at $12-14 and ended with the final report Sept. 9 at $14-16,” TheGrower.com reports.

The new start date to ship is now the Monday of the last full week in April every year. For 2014, that date is April 21.  In 2013, the start date was April 15. 

Black has stated that growers started asking for his help more than a year ago, concerned about immature onions hitting the market and hurting the reputation of the industry.  Immature Vidalia onions have a shorter shelf life because they’re too wet, and when consumers slice them the rings fall apart.

Black proposed the new rule in late June this year which became law in August 2013.  Public hearings were held this fall.

Other Shipping Dates

This year the shipping date was based on the recommendation of the Vidalia® Onion Advisory Panel under the authority of the law, rules and regulations applicable to Vidalia® onions.

Vidalia® onions may ONLY be shipped prior to April 15 if each and every load being shipped has a Federal-State Inspection Certificate stating the onions have met the established grade requirements and are under “Positive Lot Identification” as approved by the Federal-State Inspection Service. “Baby” Vidalia® onions with greens attached may also be shipped earlier in the season.

“The Federal-State Inspection assures the quality of the onions and that they have matured to meet the marketing standards,” Commissioner Black said. “Onions that are harvested and shipped too early and do not meet the grade requirements can damage the reputation of this important crop.”

Vidalia® growers were generally upbeat and optimistic regarding the 2013. Most reported great stands, uniform growth and a general low-incidence of plant disease – all pointing to a great crop.  Conversely, there were also cooler-than-normal temperatures in 2013 which slowed maturity and there were few quality supplies able to ship before April 15.  Georgia Vidalia® onion growers planned to harvest more than 12,000 acres of Vidalia® onions in 2013. 

Vidalia® onions are unique to Georgia and may only be grown in parts of a 20-county area in the southeastern part of the state.  The onions are prized for their sweetness and lack of heat and are used raw or cooked.

 

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