It's hardly surprising that the Farm Bill passed this year by Congress is a bloated and idiotic boondoggle. I'm one of many who's written thousands of words on the topic.
But lost perhaps amidst the focus on Congress's role in (mis)shaping American agriculture are less newsworthy state laws that have similarly nefarious impact on farmers and consumers alike.
Take Georgia's Vidalia® Onion Committee (yes, "Vidalia® Onion" is a registered trademark). That's right. The state has a Vidalia® Onion Committee. The stated role of the commission is "to jointly fund research and promotional programs." The committee has been in the new recently thanks to a court case challenging rules it established that mandate specific shipment and marketing dates for Vidalia onions.
Specifically, the Georgia rules state that packing and marketing of Vidalia onions "shall commence no sooner than 12:01 AM on the Monday of the last full week of April, each year."
What happens on the off chance that weather conditions—which are, er, sometimes known to figure into agriculture—play more of a role in determining when a crop is ready than are those unbending regulations? What happens if your crop is ready earlier than the regulations allow? Tough luck.
The nation's largest Vidalia onion grower, Delbert Bland, has the gall to think he might know better than do the onion commissioners what date he should ship his onions. So he did just that.
"Instead of shipping out their onions on April 21, a date set by the state for this year as a way to protect the Vidalia brand and to keep the playing field level, the growers wanted to send out some onions early," reports the New York Times.
So the state fined him. As a result, Bland sued.
What's behind this fight? Georgia insists its uniform start date "assures the quality of the onions and that they have matured to meet the marketing standards," Commissioner Gary W. Black said in 2013. "Onions that are harvested and shipped too early and do not meet the grade requirements can damage the reputation of this important crop."
Indeed, last year's "Vidalia onion harvest reportedly produced some immature onions, and Black aims to prevent that from happening again," reports the Southeast Farm Press (in a post worth reading for the Paul Masson reference alone).
Hence the new "packing date" law, which took effect in August.
While Bland won the first round in court, the state appealed.
It also went on the offensive. The Vidalia Onion Commission charmed a group of "national food bloggers and key media people" on a recent tour.
The state also warned Vidalia "growers that the [packing date] rule remains in effect while the state appeals."
But that didn't stop Bland from flouting the rule.
Bland told the AP that he shipped "his crop early to supermarkets in defiance of the state agriculture commissioner."
The existence of rules like those that handcuff many Georgia Vidalia farmers aren't new and are by no means restricted to Georgia. Take, for example, a California law that mandates that the fat content of all avocados must be at least eight percent.
Idaho's Potato Commission proudly "collects a 12-cent tax per every 100 pounds of potatoes sold[.]"
The Idaho commission, in turn, issues mandatory guidelines for potato growers and packers in the state.
"When labeling or identifying Idaho potatoes," the guidelines state, "Idaho must be followed by the registration mark, as in Idaho® potatoes."
But the breadth of these state food® commissions and laws doesn't add anything to their appeal.
While Bland's appeal of the Georgia Vidalia rule doesn't have express national implications—it was filed in state court—a victory for Bland and his fellow farmers could make Georgia and other states think twice before enacting still more stringent rules for farmers. That could make victory for Vidalia® farmers sweet news for all Americans.