Now lush green and growing taller, the Arkansas wheat crop is a promise of the spring bloom soon to hit the Delta. But lurking in up to half the state's wheat fields is a crop planted with illegal seed.
Last fall, there was close to a 50 percent discrepancy in wheat seed tonnage sales and what the state acreage was reported to be. While some of the discrepancy comes from legally saved seed, the numbers are still “way off,” says Mary Smith, Arkansas Plant Board Seed Division director.
On the heels of both wheat seed concerns and a February Plant Board inspector training session on seed enforcement and surveillance procedures and techniques, Arkansas farmers are asking what the shake-out will be. There are fears in the farming community that seed inspections will be hot and heavy come planting season.
Not to worry, says Smith. “We're not doing anything differently. We're just redirecting our inspectors to do what they were supposed to be doing all along. The past several years, their energies were directed towards the pesticide division. We haven't spent much time doing seed enforcement. That's what the meeting we had was about. We wanted to reinforce the rules and (look) a bit further at (seed issues). We want to make sure people are selling with the proper licenses and documentation.”
There are reports of pressure on the Plant Board from seed dealers to enforce seed laws already on the books. Is that a fair assessment?
“Sort of. Over the past few years, we've gotten more and more complaints — especially during rice and wheat planting. The complaints are from dealers who have tried to sell seed and the farmers say, ‘Well, you'd better come down on the price because I can go buy it from my farming neighbor down the road. He's selling the same thing for quite a bit less.’
“So we've been getting these reports — especially over the last two years. We haven't really addressed it until now,” says Smith.
Mark Waldrip, a farmer, seed dealer and chairman of the state seed committee, says Smith is correct. While there is always pressure on the Plant Board, “I don't think there's any kind of concerted push. If we have regulations on the books, the duty of the Plant Board is to make sure the farmer gets what he paid for. If that means that a fertilizer truck has to be sampled to make sure the cargo is what it's supposed to be, then so be it. A farmer has a right — regardless of where he buys seed — to know that the seed he buys is good and is everything he paid for. The regulations are there to protect the farmers.”
While farmers are indeed being protected by the regulations, the dealers' desire to see the laws enforced shouldn't be overlooked, says a farmer who grows certified seed. “It doesn't bother me for anyone to say they're trying to keep farmers from being ripped off with (poor) seed. But let's not assume the thing driving this isn't the almighty dollar. From the business side, the seed dealers apparently thought they needed to get some handle on the seed business and protect themselves. They're losing a lot of revenue by farmers using seed run through grain bins. There's nothing altruistic about this — at least that's what me and my farming buddies think.”
Through whatever means, it sometimes comes to seed dealers' attention that those without licenses are selling seed. All dealers Delta Farm Press spoke with for this story echoed the views of dealer Don Johnston of Greenfield Seed: “What concerns seed dealers are those who're selling seed without taking the proper steps. That gives them an unfair competitive advantage over me.”
Then there are the tonnage fees, which the Plant Board needs to function.
“Tonnage fees are something dealers have to pay. This is really a tax that goes back to the Plant Board. That's one reason they're interested in this. They know there's seed being sold they aren't collecting fees on. It's in their best interest to make sure those fees come in,” says Johnston.
The whats and hows
In addition to some 20 pages of procedural and advisory documents, the following information (italicized) was provided to seed inspectors at the February meeting:
Protocol for inspectors when they see grain/seed being loaded out of a bin (in planting season)
- Inspector in pursuit of normal job duties will look for grain/seed being loaded out of bins into trucks/grain carts.
- (A) Stop at bin and identify yourself.
(B) Issue notice of inspection. If farmer refuses to sign, make notation as such.
- Identify the reason for the inspection as follows: “We are checking on movement of seed in Arkansas. We have a few questions we need answered.”
Although farmers Delta Farm Press has spoken with are worried about impending inspections like those outlined above, Plant Board employees claim surveillance and enforcement of seed laws won't be overly intrusive.
While allowing that timing of inspections are sometimes bothersome, the process won't be overbearing, says Smith.
“What we instructed (the inspectors) to do was, if they saw something during planting season — whether loading was on a farmer's land or elsewhere — they should stop and ask the purpose and where it was going. According to seed laws, inspectors have the right to do that. They have the right to check on movement of grain within the state,” says Smith.
Another concern of farmers is that inspectors also have access to warehouse receipts. If a farmer has grain stored in a warehouse, can inspectors go in and inspect the grain?
“The Grain Warehouse Division at the Plant Board has information on who has seed cleaned. They're following up on some of those to see if the farmer is using the seed on his own farm or something else,” says Smith.
Curiously, Smith says inspectors “don't plan to take any samples unless a farmer himself indicates that the variety is one illegal to sell. Any samples of that grain won't be processed in our lab either. They'll be sent to a federal lab.”
So if a farmer lies and tells an inspector that a bin contains a public variety when it actually contains a patented variety, the Plant Board has no recourse?
“(The farmer) doesn't have to tell us anything. If someone is doing something illegal, we don't really expect them to tell us about it. But maybe there are still farmers out there that don't know what their legal obligations are. For those farmers, we're not trying to get them into trouble, but simply letting them know what it is they're doing wrong,” says Smith.
Do seed dealers think there needs to be stronger enforcement? If not, couldn't it be argued the inspectors are a figurehead without a big stick?
“The maximum penalties for this are civil and minimal. Let's lay it all on the table: the license and everything that goes with it only works if everyone tries to be legitimate. If there's someone out there with an intent to be dishonest, he can make it very difficult for the Plant Board to know it,” says Johnston.
In regards to inspections, the hope, says Waldrip, is that inspectors will use a “certain amount of common-sense with this.”
Johnston agrees. “I was talking to an inspector and he said if there are six trailer trucks lined up at a bin, they're not likely loading seed. But if there are two or three bob-trucks with augers sticking out the back, it might be more noteworthy.
“These inspectors have a pretty good idea about who's been selling seed anyway. They're in the area and they know. Yeah, they might show up on a farm where a farmer is loading his own seed out, but I think the Plant Board inspectors know who they need to keep an eye on,” says Johnston.
Whether they will follow through or not, there are farmers claiming they'll simply get a license and the state will soon be awash in new seed dealers. Farmers who have been brown-bagging seed are threatening to simply defeat the system by joining it.
Welcome aboard, say current seed dealers. “They certainly have the right to do that. I affirm their ability to do that. If they want to pay the license, get the analysis and pay the tonnage fees and all the rest, no problem. I'm a pure capitalist and am for a free market,” says Johnston.
“I predict some farmers are going to jump on this and get a license. Farmers aren't stupid and are usually very astute businessmen. It only makes sense. Rightly or wrongly, farmers are going to become legitimate competition against the guys currently pushing for enforcement of these regulations. Brown-bagging will come out of the shadows,” says a soybean farmer in northeast Arkansas.