Even if you’ve never been to south Georgia, you’ve probably tasted the region’s most famous vegetable. It’s almost time for this year’s Vidalia onions to start showing up in the produce aisle.
Some Georgia farmers are beginning to harvest the $120 million crop this week. But that's not going over well with some other growers -- or Georgia's agriculture commissioner, who wants farmers to wait to pack and ship onions until next Monday, April 21.
The dispute centers around what's best for the Vidalia brand. To be labelled a Vidalia, onions must be certain approved varieties, and must be grown in a 20-county region in southeast Georgia. They're know for their sweetness, a product of the soil and water conditions in the region.
"Matter of fact, they only make you cry when they’re gone," says Delbert Bland, by all accounts the biggest grower of sweet onions in the nation.
Standing in a field of onions, with narrow green shoots sticking out of the ground, Bland says Vidalias grow rapidly during the final two or three weeks before harvest.
"If you come out here tomorrow, you’ll see cracks all over this dirt," Bland says. "That’s just how fast they grow at the very end."
His company, Bland Farms, raises close to 3,000 acres of onions. He says a lot of them are ready to harvest and sell.
But the leader of Georgia’s agriculture department, Commissioner Gary Black, says farmers have been rushing onions to market to take advantage of higher prices early in the season. He says some grocers are complaining to him about quality.
"Quality," Black says, "meaning taste, shelf life, appearance."
As guardian of the Vidalia trademark, Black says he wants to make sure onions aren’t in stores before they’re ready. So he set April 21 as the official packing date. That means farmers who harvest and pack early could be fined as much as $1,000 per illicit onion bag.
"In most growers’ minds, that’s been the earliest date that a real, true reliable Vidalia onion could be put into the marketplace," Black says.
But harvesting too late carries its own risks, says George Boyhan, a vegetable specialist with the University of Georgia Extension.
"In my professional opinion, that’s insane," he says.
Boyhan started working with Vidalia farmers in the late 1990s. He says harvesting too late can expose the crop to diseases.
"Onions we’d harvest in the second or third week in May, we always had problems with those bacterial diseases," Boyhan says.
But many farmers support a later start to the season. Bo Herndon is chairman of a growers’ advisory panel that helped choose the April 21 pack date. Herndon says he won’t harvest until early May - even though some of his competitors are starting earlier.
"I think it’s all about the dollar," Herndon says. "And if they pick right now they’re not gonna be ready. They’re gonna be green and whoever gets them isn’t gonna be happy with them."
Bland, meanwhile, has pushed back, taking the agricultural commissioner to court. He says it's not good business to wait to harvest - even if other farmers would like him to.
"They don't want someone to go to market before they do," Bland says. "We're all onion growers, and yet we all compete with each other or market share."
This year, that competition isn’t just playing out in the grocery aisle, but also in Georgia courtrooms.