Chicago Sun-Times (Sunday) - - BUSINESS - BY ADRIAN SAINZ

MEM­PHIS, Tenn. — A fed­eral judge or­dered set­tle­ment talks Thurs­day in a law­suit filed by black farm­ers from Mis­sis­sippi and Ten­nessee who claim a com­pany sold them faulty, low-yield soy­bean seeds be­cause of their race.

Dur­ing a court hear­ing in Mem­phis, U.S. District Judge John T. Fowlkes told the farm­ers and Stine Seed Co. to be­gin me­di­a­tion in a law­suit al­leg­ing the com­pany con­spired with a seed sales­man to sell thou­sands of dol­lars’ worth of de­fec­tive seeds to the farm­ers be­cause they are black. Fowlkes also ques­tioned whether the farm­ers have enough proof of a con­spir­acy and facts that sup­port claims of dis­crim­i­na­tion, or if they were just mak­ing “spec­u­la­tive com­ments” in their law­suit.

The farm­ers al­lege the seeds were much less pro­duc­tive than ex­pected and sales­man Kevin Cooper mis­led them with claims of good yields from soy­bean plants grown in fer­tile Mis­sis­sippi Delta fields. The suit filed in April al­leges the good seeds the farm­ers thought they had bought from Stine were re­placed by in­fe­rior seeds be­fore de­liv­ery. The farm­ers claim they were given the bad seeds as part of a larger pattern of dis­crim­i­na­tion and “racial an­i­mus” against them.

Stine and Cooper have de­nied ac­cu­sa­tions of false ad­ver­tise­ment, fraud, rack­e­teer­ing and dis­crim­i­na­tion, call­ing them base­less, ir­re­spon­si­ble and in­flam­ma­tory. They have filed mo­tions to dis­miss the law­suit, ar­gu­ing that it doesn’t cite a sin­gle racist com­ment or in­stance where the black farm­ers were treated dif­fer­ently from white farm­ers.

“It seems to me that the par­ties need to sit down and talk about this,” the judge said.

In March 2017, farmer Ty­rone Grayer met Cooper at the Mid-South Farm and Gin Show in Mem­phis, the 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.

The farm­ers had ex­pected 48 bushels or more of plump soy­beans per acre, based on prior per­for­mance from other seeds. In­stead, they got about 25 bushels per acre, and some­times less — as lit­tle as five bushels per acre, the law­suit claims.

The farm­ers al­lege Cooper and an­other man, Greg Crigler, swapped out the good seeds for the bad ones at a ware­house in Sledge, Mis­sis­sippi. The black farm­ers were given the in­fe­rior seeds, and white farm­ers got the good ones, the law­suit claims.

Daniel Van Horn, an at­tor­ney for Crigler, has de­nied Crigler switched out the seeds. Van Horn said ac­cu­sa­tions of racism are bad, but “falsely ac­cus­ing some­one of racism is equally as bad.”

Maria Calaf, a lawyer for Adel, Iowa-based Stine, said the racism ac­cu­sa­tions were “rank spec­u­la­tion.”

And, Fowlkes asked the farm­ers’ lawyers if they had any facts sup­port­ing their racism claims.

“How do we make the leap?” Fowlkes said.

One of the farm­ers’ attorneys, J. Ger­ard Stranch, said that while he only joined the case late last year, he could file an amended com­plaint with more facts. The de­fense op­posed that. Stranch did ac­cuse Stine of en­gag­ing in a “con­tin­u­ous pattern of rack­e­teer­ing con­spir­acy.”

Fowlkes set a March 15 me­di­a­tion dead­line.

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