ATLANTA - Georgia's agriculture commissioner can set a packing date for the state's famed Vidalia onions, an appeals court has ruled.
The Georgia Court of Appeals ruled last Tuesday in a dispute between state Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black and Bland Farms, a major grower of the sweet onions.
In August 2013, Black established a rule setting a packing date that he said was meant to keep immature Vidalia onions off store shelves to protect a $150 million brand. Black had the support of many farmers - the appeals court ruling notes that 11 filed a brief in support of his arguments.
Delbert Bland, whose family farms roughly 3,000 acres in southeast Georgia devoted to the crop, challenged the rule, saying he should be able to pack onions when he thinks they're ready.
A Fulton County Superior Court judge in March 2014 ruled in favor of Bland, striking down the rule. The state appealed.
The Vidalia brand is a state trademark, and state law limits the growth of the official state vegetable to 13 counties and parts of seven other counties, all in Georgia.
State law allows but does not require the commissioner to set a shipping date for the onions, based on advice from the Vidalia Onion Advisory Panel. That law also allows for earlier shipments, provided the onions get a U.S. No. 1 grade certificate.
Lawyers for Bland argued the new rule creates a new method for determining shipping dates for Vidalia onions and therefore is beyond the authority of the commissioner. They also argued the new packing date rule violates growers' right to ship Vidalia onions if no shipping date has been set and violates their right to ship before a shipping date if they have the required certification.
The appeals court ruling says Bland's argument is misguided, that state law does not imply a general right to ship but rather gives them permission to ship in a certain circumstance depending on the commissioner's discretion.
The ruling says the commissioner has the authority to set a packing date. The court's ruling says the packing date rule falls within the commissioner's power "as all authority to regulate packing and shipping rests with the Commissioner."
"We also conclude that some evidence was presented to support a finding that the packing date rule is reasonable in light of the testimony and letters received by the Commissioner concerning the declining quality of the Vidalia onion and the threat to the industry," the ruling says.
Mike Bowers, a former Georgia attorney general and Bland's lawyer, did not immediately respond to a phone message and email Monday seeking comment on the ruling.
In an emailed statement, Black said he's pleased with the appeals court decision and plans to "continue to work with growers and the Vidalia onion advisory panel to preserve the quality of the Vidalia onion brand that consumers expect and deserve."