A group of African-American farmers has filed a class-action lawsuit in a federal court in Memphis, Tennessee, alleging that a seed company intentionally sold them fake seeds because of their race.
In March of 2017, a group of black farmers purchased soybean seeds from Stine Seed Company at the Mid-South Farm & Gin Show held in Memphis. The Iowa-based seed company is the world’s largest, with over 900 unique seed and chemical patents, and has worked closely with Monsanto—now Bayer—since 1997 to develop new corn and soybean varieties. The farmers in the lawsuit claim they were deliberately targeted by Stine sales representatives and sold fake products.
Soybeans are the most valuable agricultural product in the state of Tennessee, bringing in over $800 million a year—twice the industry value of the state's second most profitable crop, hay. Soy is big business in the state, and experienced farmers know when a batch of seeds is bad.
“Mother nature doesn’t discriminate,” Thomas Burrell, president of the Black Farmer and Agriculturalists Association and one of the plaintiffs, told news cameras outside of the federal courthouse on Tuesday. “Why is it then that white farmers are buying Stine seed and their yield is 60, 70, 80, and 100 bushels of soybeans and black farmers who are using the exact same equipment with the exact same land, all of a sudden, your seeds are coming up five, six, and seven bushels?”
“These farmers… started to notice their soybean crops were not developing at the rate that was commensurate to what these certified seeds should have produced,” Burrell went on. The farmers had purchased over $100,000 worth of seeds, as well as another $100,000 worth of agricultural chemicals from a Stine sales representative. Burrell had the seeds vetted by Mississippi State University’s Seed Testing Laboratory. “[The lab] planted 100 of those seeds, and zero of those seeds germinated,” he said. The lab determined that the seeds sold to the black farmers were, in fact, not certified Stine seeds.
“These seeds now have become weaponized,” said Burrell.
He referred to the dummy seeds as a “blunt weapon” being used to “annihilate, eradicate, and wipe out” black farmers. There is much evidence to suggest that black farmers have been discriminated against at many points in the American farming system, from being denied bank loans that could help keep farmland in the same family across generations to being given unequal assistance by USDA support programs and extension services. The ability of farmers to retain their farmland has become increasingly difficult over recent decades due to corporate consolidation of small farmers, among many other issues. Black farmers, who make up just 2 percent of the overall farmer population in the US, feel those difficulties exponentially more acutely.
In a statement, Myron Stine—the president of Stine Seed Company—denied the allegations contained in the lawsuit, stating that they were “without merit and factually unsupportable.” The statement went on to say that the company conducted an internal investigation into the allegations of discrimination and could find no evidence that supported those claims. He said the company intends to “vigorously defend itself” against the “meritless lawsuit” and has filed a motion to dismiss the case.