Members of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, Inc. held a press conference after their fake-seed case was ordered to mediation. (Photo courtesy of Patricia A. Rogers)

The dispute between the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association (BFAA) and Stine Seed Company has been routed to mediation and that’s a huge win for the farmers, according to BFAA President Thomas Burrell.

Burrell and the BFFA charge Stine with selling them fake soybean seeds because of “racial animus.” Stine concedes nothing, countering that the accusations are “baseless, irresponsible, and inflammatory.”

In a court hearing Thursday, U.S. District Judge John T. Fowlkes set March 15 as a mediation deadline for the two sides to negotiate a mutually agreeable settlement.

BFAA President Burrell also is a plantiff in the case.

“We feel really blessed to have Judge Fowlkes,” said Burrell. “Stine’s attorneys have filed several motions for dismissal, calling our claims baseless and unfounded. But Judge Fowlkes has repeatedly denied all motions for dismissal of our case.”

Burrell, who talked with The New Tri-State Defender on Friday morning, said “…farmers from all over the nation are still calling to join the suit because of the trickery and shenanigans Stine has subjected black farmers to. The movement to mediation was a good thing.”

Neither the defendants nor their attorneys offered any statement following adjournment. And inquiries made for comment through the company’s email on the Stine website went unanswered. No phone number is listed on the site.

Charges against the seed-producing giant include false advertisement, fraud, racketeering and racial discrimination. Stine is the world’s largest private seed company and specializes in soybean and corn genetics. Based in Adel, Iowa, the entity is worth $3 billion.

Fowlkes asked all the right questions, according to Burrell.

“We appreciate his sense of fairness in questioning our charges of conspiracy and racial discrimination,” he said. “He gave our counsel the opportunity to lay out the facts, facts we believe clearly support the allegations.

“We started out with just eight plaintiffs, but the defrauding of black farmers all over the country is so rampant that we are probably moving toward a class action.”

Gerard Stranch IV, one of the attorneys for the farmers, offered to file an amended complaint to include more factual support for the charges, since he had only joined the case at the end of last year. The defense opposed any new filings. Stranch, undeterred, accused Stine of engaging in a “continuous pattern of racketeering and conspiracy.”

“I agree that this has been a decades-long pattern for Stine,” said Burrell. “They did it to my father, and they did it to our grandfathers. Let’s be clear. These actions were not some isolated occurrences.

“The lab tests don’t lie. MSU (Mississippi State University) said that the seeds we brought there for testing had zero – zero – percent germination. That means they were impotent.”

The seeds in question were taken to Mississippi State University in December of 2017 for laboratory testing. MSU determined that the seeds tested were dormant. For a plant or seed, “dormant” means that it is alive but not actively growing. Stine contends that “it cannot verify the samples provided to the lab or the lab results.”

Contact with Stine Seed Company was first made through Kevin Cooper who promised farmers a high-yielding, superior soybean product in March, 2017. But the Stine product was switched out for inferior seed before delivery to the farmers, it is alleged. At harvest, it was noted that the plants were notably inferior with shorter growth and a substandard product.

The farmers accused Cooper and another man, Greg Crigler, of swapping out the good seeds for the defective ones at a warehouse in Sledge, Miss.. Only “black farmers” received the bogus seeds, the lawsuit claims.

In the fertile Mississippi Delta soil, nearly 40 bushels or more was expected per acre. Less than half was harvested, and in some instances, as little as five bushels was produced. African-American farmers ordered 12,000 pounds of Stine seed and logged record losses in 2017. Plaintiffs paid $50 a bag when the price should have been $10, the filing states.

“These black farmers noticed that even when these seeds were planted in April and May of 2017, that they were slow in germinating. They began to complain that their plants were not as fruitful as their similarly situated white neighbors’ crops,” Burrell said.

“Over and over, black farmers recount a similar experience to our own,” Burrell said. “God said the children of Israel would be in bondage 400 years. The first slaves were brought over in 1619. It is 2019. That is not a coincidence.

“The time of bondage is over,” he said. “And the time of accepting peanuts is past. We’ve come too far to simply accept peanuts. Our time of darkness is over.”

(This story includes a report by the Associated Press.)