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November 5--  A Vidalia Onion farmer is taking the state to court over a new regulation issued by the Georgia Department of Agriculture.

{mosimage}After three meetings with Vidalia Onion farmers this year, Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black is changing the time Vidalia Onions are packed and shipped.

Under the old rules, a farmer could ship onions to market before the department's official shipping date as long as the onions passed USDA inspection and met standards for a run of the mill Grade A onion.

However, early shipping caused some Vidalia Onions to disappoint consumer expectations regarding flavor, appearance and quality.  In an attempt to avoid that, Commissioner Black has changed the reference to "shipping date" to "packing date"

In the future, Vidalia Onions may not be packed nor sold before midnight on the Monday of the last full week of April.  In 2014, that date is April 21.

"We got a lot of input from growers and most of them feel very confident this is the right step to take to restore confidence in 2014," he said.

However, the area's largest Vidalia Onion grower, Delbert Bland of Tattnall County, told the AJC Black's plan is "totally unacceptable."  Bland has been growing onions for three decades and believes you can't dictate a year out when a crop will be ready for shipping.  

His attorney, former state Attorney General Mike Bowers, has filed suit to stop Black's order which he claims is illegal.

"It's very clear that what the Commissiioner of Agriculture has done is violation of the law.  The statute says shipping date and you can't change that with a rule to say packing date, it's that simple," Bowers says.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the Vidalia Onion Committe, Kevin Hendrix of Metter, thinks something needs to be done to protect the Vidalia Onion brand.

"I think it's a good thing.  A lot of times when we try to rush it to market, we don't put the best product out there and consumers aren't happy.  We're hoping this will try to clean some of that up," he says.

Commissioner Black also notes there is flexibility in his new order which will allow a change to the packing date if dictated by weather and crop conditions.