Back in the 1970s, a popular television commercial featured actor and director Orson Welles promising: “We will sell no wine before its time.” It was one of those advertisements where people remembered the slogan more than the brand itself, which was Paul Masson wine.
Georgia’s Commissioner of Agriculture Gary Black made a similar statement recently regarding the state’s famous Vidalia onions.
To insure that the sweet onions are not in stores before they’re ready, Black's office has decreed the official packing date to be April 21, which means “official” Vidalia onions were allowed to be shipped beginning this week. Farmers who harvested and packed early could be fined as much as $1,000 per bag of onions.
In most growers’ minds, says Black, this is the earliest date that a true, reliable Vidalia onion could be put into the marketplace.
But not in the mind of Delbert Bland, the largest grower of sweet onions in the nation, who says that the government shouldn’t be in the business of dictating the shipment date of onions. It’s impossible, says Bland, to be able to make such a declaration a year in advance of harvest.
“You can’t decide in Atlanta when you’re ready to dig onions in Vidalia,” he says, referring to the commissioner’s office in the state capital.
Black says methods for determining yearly packing and shipping dates are extremely thorough and that the date itself is flexible.
Bland brought legal action against the commissioner for what he deemed to be overstepping his authority with the new regulation. A judge in Atlanta initially struck down the rule, but a Georgia superior court judge later ruled that he won’t stop Black from enforcing it.
The commissioner claims he is simply doing his job by protecting the Vidalia brand, which is grown exclusively in 20 south Georgia counties. The 2013 Vidalia onion harvest reportedly produced some immature onions, and Black aims to prevent that from happening again.
“This issue is about insuring the integrity of the trademark with consumers,” says Black. “Not just in Georgia but all over the world. It’s our state vegetable, and we’ve got to stand behind it.”
Onions were dug from the ground on March 28 of last year, says Black, and that’s way too early.
Considering that Vidalia onions make up an industry worth more than $120 million per year, it’s essential, says the commissioner, that the brand be protected and preserved.
Meanwhile, Bland reportedly ignored the rule and began shipping his onions early, but so far Commissioner Black’s office hasn’t levied a penalty for the transgression.
So who ultimately decides when it’s “time” to ship or sell sweet Vidalia onions? Stay tuned for the answer.