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Early-season Vidalia crop tending toward jumbo size, pack and ship date appeal coming

A judge's mid-March ruling overturning Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Gary Black's mandate that no Vidalia onions can be packed or shipped prior to April 21 will have no bearing on this year's crop, which has been delayed by cool weather.

But as Black prepares a promised appeal, Vidalia production will ramp up in late April with about two-thirds of the early-season offerings tending towards jumbo.VidaliaEarly-season Vidalia onions are shaping up to produce a crop tending toward jumbos — about 70 percent — even though cool weather delayed the projected start of the season. (Photo by Chip Carter)

Volume will be average, and about 70 percent of the early crop will be jumbos, though there is expectation there may not be as many colossals. But with longer days in April and May, onions can grow as much as an eighth of an inch per day; with the right temperature range, a two-inch onion in early April could be a true colossal by the time of harvest two or three weeks later.

It is still too soon to know about sizing of the middle and latter season crop.

While most growers will begin packing and shipping April 21, some, like Bland Farms in Glennville, GA, may be ready to get started a couple of days ahead of that date.

Bland filed suit to overturn Black's August mandate that no Vidalias be packed or shipped prior to the Monday of the last full week of April -- April 21 this year. The company argued that nature determines the start of the deal, not an arbitrary date, and an Atlanta Circuit Court judge agreed in a ruling handed down March 19.

Black plans an appeal, saying his office is empowered to protect state trademarks and that the pack and ship date is designed to protect the Vidalia image by lessening the chance of inferior early-season product reaching market.

"The law clearly says that we have the authority to develop regulations for packing, shipping, quality standards and all aspects of marketing this onion and that is because the trademark is registered to this department," Black told the Atlanta Journal and Constitution in a recent interview. "You harvest and you ship an immature onion, it will melt on the shelf in a week. That's what growers have faced year in and year out, trying to get the early onion out. And those early, poor-quality onions destroy the integrity of the brand."

Bland Farms owner Delbert Bland clearly disagrees. Part of Bland's year-round sweet onion program is designed around providing retailers with early-season Vidalias, and "there's no way anybody can set a date and say when onions in the ground will be ready," he said. "Mother Nature will decide when our Vidalia sweet onions are ready to ship, not an arbitrary date on the calendar. I'm glad that we'll be able to ship our onions on the normal timetable and our customers can expect that."

While other Vidalia growers agree that Mother Nature sets the date, they do not think she sets that date prior to the third week in April.

"This conversation has been going on for 10 or 15 years and will continue," said John Shuman of Shuman Produce in Reidsville, GA. "We have a commissioner of agriculture who is very interested in seeing us bring some type of resolution and consensus to this issue, we were hopeful his new ruling would do that but the resolution has continued to elude us. In any case, I certainly don't think it's the end of it, it's just the beginning of the conversation."

Meanwhile, Bo Herndon of Herndon Farms in Lyons, GA, also a supporter or the mandatory ship date, said he was "shocked" by the judge's ruling.

"I'm still behind the commissioner on the issue," said Herndon. "Ninety percent of the growers wanted the commissioner to prevail on it. We lost, now we've got to back up and figure out what to do. There's really not a lot you can say about it."

Black's office said as early as 2005 Kroger complained about immature early-season Vidalias in the market. And anecdotal evidence suggests Black did some personal market research early in the 2013 season and was disappointed by what he found on the market.

"This whole conversation came about not because of a mandatory start date, but from the question of how we as an industry protect the brand and improve the quality," Shuman said. "We never thought a mandatory date was a fix-all, we never thought it was going to be the silver bullet, but we felt like it was going to reduce the amount of immature onions on the market, which would ultimately benefit the entire Vidalia brand and all concerns involved in it.

"Worst-case scenario is nothing's going to change," Shuman continued. "Best-case scenario is we have an opportunity to learn more and discuss the issue, and the commissioner's going to continue to do that. This conversation will continue as it has for the last 15 years, which is the ironic thing about it. If it's not an issue, why are we still talking about it?"