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Black soybean farmers say they were deliberately sold defective seeds because of their race

A group of black soybean farmers from the South say a company intentionally sold them defective seeds in an elaborate scheme to place them at a disadvantage because of their race.

A lawsuit filed by African-American farmers from Tennessee and Mississippi accuses Stine Seed Co. of selling them seeds they were told were of good quality and would bring successful harvests. But despite a fertile soil, ample rain, good equipment and adequate farming capabilities, the farmers say their yields were significantly lower than expected. Farmers from a 2,200-acre farm in Rome, Mississippi, say they lost more than $1 million after an extremely poor harvest.

"They've been farming all their lives. They're capable farmers. They had new equipment. It's not that they had antique tractors . . . But for the bad seeds, these farmers would've been yielding optimal yields," said Thomas Burrell, president of the Black Farms and Agriculturalists Association, a Memphis, Tennessee, nonprofit that advocates for black farmers in the South.

Stine Seed has strongly denied allegations that the company targeted black farmers and sold them subpar products. The Iowa-based company is seeking to dismiss the lawsuit, which was filed in April in federal court in Tennessee. Calling the accusations "inflammatory," the company said the farmers were unable to present evidence proving that they were treated unfairly because of their race.

"Stine Seed takes seriously any allegations of unlawful or improper conduct and is particularly disturbed by the baseless and irresponsible allegations leveled against it here," the company said in its motion to dismiss, which was filed Monday.

Myron Stine, president of the company, said the lawsuit "is without merit and factually unsupportable." He said Stine Seed has conducted an internal investigation and found no evidence of racial discrimination. A spokeswoman said that the company provides thousands of seeds to customers every planting season and that those products cover millions of acres across the country.

The lawsuit says the farmers bought about $100,000 worth of soybean seeds from Stine Seed in the spring of 2017 after attending an annual farm show in Memphis. At the show they met a district sales manager who told them the company had soybean varieties suitable for growing conditions in Mississippi. At some point after the purchase, the farmers allege, the company switched the certified seeds the farmers thought they were buying with inferior ones. That meant the farmers ultimately paid far more than what the inferior seeds were worth, the lawsuit alleges.

"These black farmers noticed that even when these seeds were planted in April and May 2017, that they were slow in germinating," Burrell, one of the plaintiffs, said. "These farmers were constantly complaining that their plants were not as fruitful as their similarly situated white neighbors' [crops]."

The complaint cites a Mississippi State University laboratory test conducted in December that showed that the seeds the farmers bought were dormant. A Stine Seed spokeswoman said the company has no way to verify the result. And because the test was conducted at least six months after the farmers bought the seeds, the company cannot verify the samples provided to the lab, she said.

Some of the farmers said they usually produce 34 bushels of soybeans per acre each harvest but that last year's harvest yielded less than half that number because of the defective seeds. Others said their harvest last year was five bushels per acre - down from 35 bushels per acre, according to the complaint.

"When you buy certified seed, it says that it has the maximum germination. [But] they did not grow as customarily as you would expect them to grow, despite ample rain and sunshine and so forth," said David Allen Hall, also one of the plaintiffs. The seeds "did not come up immediately. They did not sustain good growth, and they then developed weakly."

Hall added: "We had to cut back on our production. I have bills yet to pay." Asked how much money he'd lost, Hall only said "considerable."

But Stine Seed said the farmers have failed to cite a single incident showing that the defendants showed hateful or discriminatory conduct. In its motion to dismiss, the company said the farmers did not identify specific racist statements made against them and that there's no evidence that white farmers were treated differently.

Burrell acknowledged that no Stine Seed employees made any racist comments against the farmers.

"We're not saying that Stine said, 'Hey, call them the n-word.' But at the end of the day, these individuals' civil rights were violated . . . They're being treated differently than a similarly situated white farmer." Burrell said. "We don't have any white farmers coming forward and saying they were a victim of being given noncertified seeds."

The farmers point to what they say is a history of systemic racism against black farmers in the South. The farmers filing the lawsuit, Burrell said, "are the new victims of an old problem."

In 1997, two African-American farmers sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture, claiming they had been systemically discriminated against and wrongfully denied farm loans and assistance because of their race. In 2010, the federal government announced a $1.25 billion settlement in that suit that went to about 18,000 farmers. Since then, Hispanic and Native American farmers have also sued the government. In 2010, the Obama administration offered $1.3 billion to settle complaints from female and Latino farmers who accused the Department of Agriculture of discrimination.

The majority of the country's black farmers live in Southern states, such as Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, Alabama and Georgia. According to government census data from 2012, the number of black farmers in the country has risen by 12 percent since 2007. The United States has about 44,600 black farmers, making up 1.4 percent of the country's 3.2 million farmers.

This article was written by Kristine Phillips, a reporter for The Washington Post.

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