'Long about mid-April, some Georgia farmers called the law to complain that big-time bootlegging was afoot in the flatlands between Macon and Savannah.
A task force was set up to investigate. Confidential informants were recruited. A search warrant was obtained. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation assembled its manpower and prepared to pounce.
At 4:40 p.m. on May 17, the task force closed in on its target -- not white lightning, but off-white, pungent vegetables that have made this town of 11,000 famous up and down the East Coast.
We're talking onions. Sweet Vidalia Onions, as much part of Georgia's rite of spring as the flowering dogwoods and azaleas.
The police raid on Nealy Scott's packing shed in Screven County was the opening salvo in a month-long scrap among the onion growers of southeast Georgia, where onions rank close to tobacco as a crucial cash crop.
Fellow farmers accused Scott of rebagging "Arizona Everkrisp onions" into Sweet Vidalia sacks and passing them off as the real thing. Thomas Irvin, Georgia's commissioner of agriculture, obtained a temporary court order shutting down the operation. The antagonists went back to court this week to continue the fight but are still mired in preliminary maneuvers. Indications are that the battle will not end soon.
Growers' groups within a 30- to 35-mile radius of Vidalia have spent years and several hundred thousand dollars promoting the Vidalia mystique. Although the Granex onion variety that produces the Vidalia is widely grown, the farmers contend that when it's planted in the sandy, low-sulphur soil of southeast Georgia, it yields the mildest, moistest onion known.
"It is sweeter," maintained R. L. Cato, who has grown Vidalias since the early 1950s and is one of the area's largest producers. "I can sure tell a difference."
A lot of consumers believe they can, too. A 50-pound bag of Vidalias brings about $25 on the market, compared to $7.50 for "ordinary onions" on a good day. A normal trailerload of 800 repackaged and relabeled sacks can fetch a quick $14,000 profit.
As the Vidalias' reputation has grown, so have incursions by bootleggers, said Don Carpenter, a Vidalia attorney who serves as president of Toombs-Montgomery Vidalia Onion Growers, Inc., one of several farmers' associations. "Up until three or four years ago, we had some small-timers who might buy two or three bags of hot onions and bag them under the Vidalia name. But then, this thing got big."
How big? Carpenter believes that bogus onions marketed this year may amount to three times the number of true Vidalias. "It's always worse after a freeze." For three of the last four years, growers lost most of their crop to a cold snap.
Carpenter sees ample reason for public concern. "Consumers are the victims of this," he said. "They can't bite into a product in the supermarket to see whether it's hot or mild. When they buy a Vidalia, they expect a sweet, mild onion. They have a right to that guarantee."
But William Braziel Jr. of Savannah, Scott's lawyer, says the Vidalia difference is "a crock . . . nothing but a lot of hype. A cocktail waitress can put a cocktail onion in a drink in Atlanta and call it a Vidalia. There is no law that designates what a Vidalia onion is."
Braziel said he plans to offer expert testimony during the hearing that a Vidalia is a Vidalia, regardless of where it's grown. On the eve of the hearing, the state filed motions to block him from offering evidence on the chemical composition of various onions and on the soil qualities of southeast Georgia.
The state Department of Agriculture wants the legal proceedings limited to consumer perceptions of Vidalias. That's because the state isn't sure where in Georgia Vidalias are grown -- although it's positively and exclusively somewhere in Georgia.
It is "regretfully correct that the state has no legal definition," Assistant Agriculture Commissioner Jim Bridges said in a recent interview. "But there is a definition in the public's mind. Would the people in Idaho want to see Maine potatoes marketed as Idaho potatoes?"
The court action against Scott is the first phase of an attempt to enforce a new state law against misrepresenting the geographic origin of products. Agriculture Commissioner Irvin is asking the court to ban Scott from further repackaging operations. Under a parallel administrative proceeding, Scott also could be fined up to $20,000.
Whatever the outcome, the controversy is likely to spill over into next year, when the Georgia Legislature reconvenes.
Last year's assembly tried for weeks to define a Vidalia but found itself in political stew. Some farmers wanted the growing area limited to five counties; others lobbied for 16 counties; still others argued that a Vidalia could be grown anywhere in the state. The bill died in committee.
But Carpenter said the onion growers aren't giving up. "We have to have stronger, more severe punishment . . . to protect the farmers and the consumers," he said. "We need more than just a slap on the back. We want a felony made out of this. Things are tough enough for farmers these days without having to fight imposters."