PARCHMAN, Miss. (AP) — Soybean farmers David Allen Hall and Tyrone Grayer had high hopes when a farm-show salesman told them the seeds he sold would bring good yields in their fertile Mississippi Delta fields, and were less likely to be damaged by weeds.
But as the plants began to grow, Hall, Grayer and other black farmers who bought certified seeds from Stine Seed salesman Kevin Cooper in 2017 noticed that they were shorter and less uniform than plants from other seeds. A bad yield followed.
Now, Hall and Grayer are among a group of five black farmers in Tennessee and Mississippi who are suing Stine Seed Co., claiming the seeds were switched and they were given faulty, low-yield seeds.
"I was disappointed because we bought certified seeds," says Hall, standing in a bright-green soybean field in the heart of the Delta. "If you contract for a thoroughbred horse, you want Secretariat to be born. Not a jackass."
The farmers also make another claim: that Cooper and Stine sold them bad seeds because of their race. The company and Cooper call the allegations baseless and irresponsible and asked a judge to throw the suit out of court. They say it doesn't cite a single racist comment or instance where the black farmers were treated differently from white farmers by company officials to support such "inflammatory" charges.
The farmers don't cite specific statements showing racism by the company. Rather, they allege discrimination in a pattern of deflective answers to questions and refusal to remedy the problem — echoes, they say, of a sordid history in the South that dates back to slavery and sharecropping.
The farmers have gleaned evidence that the seeds they bought were bad.
Their lawsuit says the farmers sent the seeds to be tested at Mississippi State University. A report from the university's seed testing laboratory said the seeds "showed rotten molded seed."
The farmers had expected 48 bushels or more of plump soybeans per acre, based on prior performance. Instead, they got about 25 bushels per acre, sometimes less — as little as five bushels per acre. The farmers allege they lost $1 million.
Their lawsuit filed in federal court in Memphis in April says Cooper, a district sales manager for Stine, sold the farmers seeds that failed to produce the promised crop yields.
The suit claims the good seeds the farmers thought they had bought from Stine were replaced by inferior seeds before delivery. The lawsuit seeks a jury trial and damages based on false advertisement, breach of contract, fraud, racketeering and racial discrimination. It names Cooper, Stine Seed, company president Myron Stine and others as defendants.
Adel, Iowa-based Stine calls the lawsuit meritless. In court documents, the company said it did not engage in "a racially-motivated conspiracy to secretly switch the soybeans."
Cooper, in a separate filing, also denies allegations of racism.
Thomas Burrell, president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturists Association, acknowledges that Cooper and others who represented Stine did not make overtly racist comments.
"Your not calling me the n-word or another word doesn't mean that you're not racist," said Burrell, a plaintiff in the case. "It's what you did. You singled out certain individuals and you sold them seeds you would not sell your white customers."
Burrell says Stine's actions are a legacy of post-slavery discrimination against black farmers. In 2011, a federal judge approved a settlement of more than $1 billion in a lawsuit brought by black farmers against the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The suit alleged that the U.S. government had discriminated against black farmers by unfairly denying them loans.
In March 2017, Grayer met Cooper at the Mid-South Farm and Gin Show in Memphis, their lawsuit states. Cooper said he had soybean seeds that were suitable for Mississippi's growing conditions. The farmers ordered 12,000 pounds of Stine seeds.
The farmers say they planted the seeds correctly and under optimal farming conditions in Sunflower and Quitman counties in May 2017. They soon observed that the plants were germinating slowly, did not stand uniformly, and were too short.
When the seeds failed to produce the expected yield, Cooper said the farmers could have over-sprayed the plants, court documents say. He suggested the soybeans might have "dicamba drift," caused by an herbicide that damages soybean plants.
The farmers allege Cooper and another man swapped out the good seeds for the bad ones at a warehouse. The black farmers were given the inferior seeds, and white farmers got the good ones, the lawsuit claims.
Hall and Burrell met Cooper and Stine agronomist Kevin Ryan at a farm in Rome, Mississippi. Ryan said "you have a yield problem." He told the farmers Stine could trace the seeds' origin and how they were shipped, the lawsuit says, but never offered to test the seeds.
"Defendants' categorical and absolute dismissal of the pleas and cries ... from plaintiffs regarding the problem with Stine seeds was a direct, blatant and intentional disregard for the safety and welfare of black farmers and constitutes a badge of incidences of slavery," the lawsuit says.
A court hearing has been set for Nov. 14.