Mississippi's new seed law was stuck in neutral.
Among the differences — seed companies did not want to be held liable for any claims made by advertising; grower groups wanted access to more information about the seed they bought; and nobody wanted new amendments to drive up seed costs.
Then, in 1999, a cotton field in Holmes County helped to pull everyone back to the table.
Recalled Belzoni, Miss., cotton producer Willard Jack. “The cotton was along a Hill line area in what I call those cold soils right next to the foothills. It did germinate and come up, but it just did not grow off like it should. Nobody could figure out what it was, but it was definitely related to the seed because another lot of the same variety right next to it was fine.”
Jack, who was chairman of a committee working on changes to Mississippi's seed law, was asked what recourse the farmer had. “I told them there was nothing we could do about it. That's why we're trying to change the law.”
The situation in that field exemplified shortcomings of the state's seed law so well that state representatives Mary Ann Stevens, D-Holmes County, and Steve Holland, D-Lee County, who is also chairman of the Mississippi House Agriculture Committee, were called. “They went down and actually had a hearing, listened to the problem and decided that the seed company needed to be there to answer these problems.”
Attendees of the later meeting included state Agriculture Commissioner Lester Spell as well as representatives from the seed company. “The legislators realized that they had some problems and at the same time, the company realized that they had some problems,” Jack said.
The committee got back to work on the seed law with renewed enthusiasm. “We were going real good,” Jack said. “Then Steve Holland told me that he wanted an agreement on his desk by Oct. 1 (1999). I said, ‘What if we don't have an agreement?’ He said, ‘I want whatever you've got. We'll sort it out.’”
“I didn't want to be in contempt of the House. You do what they tell you to do. So I said, ‘Yes sir.’”
The next meeting of the committee again hit some snags and several members suggested another meeting. “We're through meeting,” Jack told the group. “I'm going to put what we have together, where we agree and disagree and send it to them. That's what we did.”
By the end of the year, the seed committee and the legislators had put the finishing touches on a piece of legislation that all sides characterized as fair. Important changes included incorporating transgenic seed into the law, requiring that seedsmen provide more information about seed, incorporating “how to use” labeling on transgenic seed, as well as new rules regarding arbitration.
For Jack, the most important change in Mississippi's 19-year old seed law were laws giving producers a wide-range of information about each bag of seed they intend to plant, including blending information and date of origin of the seed. It was long overdue.
“It's real simple,” Jack said. “Seed used to be $30 bag. It wasn't a big thing. Now with technology fees and all the added costs associated with it, seed is a serious issue. The seed companies are actually in the chemical business. They have to understand chemical liability.”
What happened to the cotton field in Holmes County is still not completely understood and is currently under litigation. But Jack believes that in the future, similar situations might be avoided because growers have access to more information about the seed they're planting and can make better decisions about when and where to plant it.
According to Steve Hawkins, president of Delta and Pine Land Co., who was also on the committee, transgenics were the primary driving force behind the effort. “With transgenic seed, there is a different set of expectations that were not expressed in the seed law.” The amendments, “gave us the chance to address it in a positive manner.”
Bud Hughes, president of Stoneville Pedigreed Seed Co. agreed. “The previous version of the seed law was written in 1972 and therefore didn't acknowledge transgenic seed. It needed some fresh makeup.”
Hughes, who represented the Mississippi Seedsmen Association on the seed committee, said, “The committee provided a forum for everyone to put as many issues as possible on the table. I don't think anybody came out of there thinking it was ideal for their cause. But everybody felt like they could live with it. It made good sense for the whole industry.”
The seed law also included changes in labeling where “specific product use guides” were added to the bag, noted Hughes. “For example, information was added that tells you how to use Bollgard. That's now part of the label and what the company has to warrant. That makes sense.”
The seed law now requires seed companies to make lot records for seed available to growers. “If the purchaser requests information like cool germ, we give it to them,” Hughes said. “We also provide information on blending if the grower asks.”
Another amendment to the seed law changes the makeup of the arbitration council that handles disputes between farmers and seedsmen.
Instead of having a permanent council with alternates, the council will be chosen from a pool. This way, council member with expertise in certain areas can be included. “If it's a soybean problem, (Extension soybean specialist) Alan Blaine, could be on the council, a cotton problem, it will be (Extension cotton specialist) Will McCarty,” Jack said.
Jack points out that the arbitration council has more power than before to bring all of the facts about the case out in the open and on the record. “It's sort of a fact-finding session,” he said of the arbitration process.
The board can also compel specific individuals from a company to appear. “A company representative may testify that he didn't know about a grower's problem because he wasn't the person who looked at it. The council can ask which representative did look at it and order him to appear before the board. It allows the commissioner to decide who he thinks needs to be there.”
Jack stresses that the amendments don't put extreme pressure on either the seed industry or farmer. “I'm not saying it's just wonderful for farmers. It's not all we could have had. But I don't think the seed industry is as happy as they could have been, either. But we're not going to have to pay $2 a bag more just to cover the liability.”
Other members of the committee included representatives from the Department of Agriculture, Mississippi State University Extension Service and Experiment Stations, Mississippi Agricultural Consultants Association and the Delta Council.