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A judge in Georgia has refused to step into a bitter legal battle between one of the state's most prominent onion farmers and the state's agricultural commission over a new regulation aimed at keeping unripe onions from store shelves.
The judge denied a request by farmer Delbert Bland to stop the commissioner from enforcing a new rule prohibiting Vidalia onions from being packed for shipping before April 21. The rule was struck down last month, but Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black says it's still in effect while state attorneys file an appeal.
Vidalia onions are a sweet variety of onion that is a source of local pride and $150 million a year in sales. Only certified onions grown in a specific 20-county area of Georgia can use the name Vidalia.
Despite the judge's ruling Tuesday, Bland said he planned to start shipping onions to supermarkets Wednesday.
"They're mature and they're excellent quality and they're ready to be shipped," Bland said. "We don't feel like it's fair that the government dictates what day we can ship the onions."
Bland could face fines of up to $5,000 per box or bag of onions. He could also lose the right to call his crops "Vidalia."
In prior years, Vidalia onion farmers have been allowed to ship onions earlier than the official start date if federal inspectors gave them a U.S. 1 grade.
Local farmers said that early shipping of onion, which takes advantage of higher prices early in the season, was such a problem that supermarket customers were bringing unripe ones back for refunds.
"When somebody purchases our onions in a store, it's got to be the quality we're known for," said farmer Walt Dasher. "We've got a good thing and we don't want to mess it up."