Last Saturday, David Light sold me an onion.
It weighed 1.46 pounds, and it was big and round and sweet. He grew it from Walla Walla seed, and he was planning on selling it as a Walla Walla onion until he found out something very interesting. We'll start at the beginning, okay?
Walla Walla onions have a long history. According to legend, a Frenchman named Peter Pieri brought the seed over from Italy to the Walla Walla Valley in Washington State in 1890. The valley has a specific kind of soil—very low in sulfur and very rich—and a mild climate. The onion thrived. Pieri and his neighbors kept growing, and kept selecting the seed from the biggest, roundest, sweetest plants. After a few generations, people said the Walla Walla onions were so sweet you could eat them like an apple. They got a reputation.
Other people grew Walla Walla onions, too—people outside the valley. But in 1995, a group of growers from the Walla Walla Valley decided that this wasn't fair. The Walla Walla had gotten its name from their soil and their climate, they reasoned, and people simply couldn't grow the same quality onion elsewhere. So they took their case to the federal government, and it handed down Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Order Number 956.
Basically, the marketing order makes it illegal for anyone outside the legally specified growing area—Walla Walla Valley, which is in partly in southeastern Washington and also a little bit in Oregon state—to market their onions as Walla Walla sweets. There's a ten member committee that regulates this.
But here's where things get confusing. Seed catalogs and plant vendors can sell their products under the Walla Walla name, just not the onions themselves. But when David Light bought his Walla Walla plants, there was nothing that said "Caution!" or "Be Careful!" He had no idea he couldn't sell his onions under the Walla Walla name.
He found out about the marketing order before it caused him any trouble. He sells his Walla Walla variety onions as Sweet Corsicans. But I talked with a small market farmer in Ohio, Lucy Goodman, who got a letter ordering her to cease and desist or pay a fine of $5,000 a day.
I can't really decide where I stand on this. On the one hand, yes! we want to protect local food and its heritage and traditions. But should we get the federal government involved?
What do you think? I'm curious.
P.S. There's a similar marketing order for selling Vidalia onions. Georgia growers got theirs before the Walla Walla growers, back in 1989.