By David Beasley
ATLANTA (Reuters) - Georgia's famed Vidalia onions are sweet and so are the sales, with the brand that retails nationwide generating $150 million annually.
But a new state rule that delays the onion's shipping date has hit a sour note with some farmers who deem the timing arbitrary for a crop that has the distinction of being grown in only 20 south Georgia counties.
One unhappy farmer, the country's largest Vidalia onion grower, is fighting back with a lawsuit.
"That absolutely will not fly," said Delbert Bland, a Tattnall County farmer who produces more than a third of the Vidalia onion crop. "You can't project when an onion is going to be mature."
Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black has pushed back next spring's shipping date by several weeks to late April, arguing that the quality and appearance of the onions has been sacrificed over the last several years by rushing them to market too soon.
The state owns the Vidalia onion trademark and has to protect the brand, Black said.
"Vidalias are a premium product," he said. "We have a responsibility to make sure consumers are getting what they're paying for."
Southeast Georgia farmers in search of a new cash crop began growing onions in the 1930s and discovered the low-sulfur soil and weather conditions in the region produced a mild, sweet onion, according to the Vidalia Onion Committee, an industry organization.
As word of the onion's sweetness spread, the crop was picked up by a local grocery store chain and eventually sold around the country.
Shipping normally runs from mid-April to early fall, with many of the onions preserved in controlled-atmosphere storage after they are harvested, according to the Vidalia Onion Committee. Sweet onions available in the off-season are not Vidalias.
This year, after some onions were shipped during the first week of April, the quality was so bad that one northern grocery store chain told a Georgia grower not to bother sending anymore, Black said.
Bob Stafford, director of the Vidalia Onion Business Council, another growers' organization, said some farmers requested assistance from the state in improving onion quality and helped craft the new shipping date rule.
"The majority of the farmers are in favor of this," Stafford said.
The rule allows changes in the shipping date due to unusual weather conditions, Black noted.
Bland disagrees that the most recent crop suffered any quality issues due to early shipping. He contends that onions shipped early this year were better in appearance than those shipped later because a cold snap in April damaged some of the crop that had not yet been harvested.
He has hired a high-powered attorney, former Georgia Attorney General Michael Bowers, and is challenging the state order with a lawsuit that questions Black's authority to delay the shipping date.
Previously, an advisory panel of farmers recommended a date based on weather and other factors each year, and the state typically approved the recommendation, Bland said.
More stringent inspection standards before the onions go to market are key to ensuring crop quality, he said.
"We have as much as $10,000 an acre invested in that crop before we pack it," he said. "And you're going to tell a guy to leave it in the field two more weeks just to make sure everyone else is ready, too?"
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and John Wallace)