Vidalia onion farmer ordered to pay $1.4M in overtime suit

One of the largest producers of Georgia's famous Vidalia onions must pay $1.4 million in damages and unpaid overtime owed to hundreds of workers, a federal judge ruled.

A U.S. District Court judge found that Bland Farms Production and Packing LLC failed to pay overtime to 460 workers during spring harvest seasons from 2012 through this year. The U.S. Department of Labor filed suit against the company, owned by farmer Delbert Bland of Glennville, in 2014.

"This decision recovers back wages for hundreds of workers in an industry where these violations are all too common," Wayne Kotowski, Southeast administrator for the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division, said in a news release Thursday.

A farmer for more than three decades, Bland grows onions on more than 2,000 acres (810 hectares) in rural southeast Georgia. Vidalia onions, touted by some as being so sweet they can be eaten raw like apples, ship worldwide but are limited by state law to being grown in just 20 Georgia counties.

Last year's crop was valued at $120 million, according to the Georgia Department of Agriculture.

Labor Department attorneys said Bland Farms ran afoul of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, which exempts American farmers from paying overtime to workers for growing, harvesting and packaging the farmer's own crops.

The lawsuit accused Bland Farms of wrongly claiming that overtime exemption when it paid workers for packing onions Bland bought from other farmers. Most of the onions Bland markets are grown on his own land, his attorneys said. But Bland Farms also had contracts with smaller local farmers to buy their entire onion crops.

Defense attorneys said Bland broke no labor rules because he was more than just a buyer. In court filings, they argued Bland Farms employees helped grow and harvest onions produced by the farmers it had agreements to buy from — therefore making Bland a farmer of those onions.

"Bland Farms respects but disagrees with the district court's decision against it," said Bradley Strawn, Bland's lead attorney in the case.

Strawn said Bland plans to appeal the judge's ruling, which was filed Oct. 2.