A Phillips County lawsuit accuses farmers of joining the Arkansas Seed Growers Association fraudulently, intent on taking over the group and eventually gaining enough clout with the Arkansas State Plant Board to overturn restrictions on a powerful and controversial herbicide, dicamba.
The farmers say they’ve been unfairly barred from a group they’re entitled to join, and have sued for reinstatement.
The seed association says the farmers joined under the guise of contributing to agriculture. But their “sole purpose for seeking membership was to kick out other members, seize control of the Association, use the ASGA to gain membership on the Plant Board and ultimately begin the process of expanding the use of dicamba in the State of Arkansas,” the association said in a counterclaim against the farmers filed last month in Phillips County Circuit Court.
In December, a group of farmers, including Perry Galloway of Gregory, Ross Bell of Bassett and Michael McCarty of Osceola, sued the ASGA. The legal battle marks the latest friction among farmers over dicamba, which can drift across farm borders after being applied, harming other fields of crops.
At the time the farmers joined the ASGA, the organization had the authority to appoint one of its members to the Arkansas State Plant Board, which oversees the rules for dicamba use. The Arkansas State Supreme Court ruled in May 2021 that associations can no longer appoint members directly to the Plant Board.
ASGA President Reed Storey told Arkansas Business he believed the farmers sought to join the association as a group to potentially take it over “with their like-minded people” and place a representative on the Plant Board. “I think that was their endgame,” he said.
An attorney for the farmers, Grant Ballard, a partner with the law firm of Ark Ag Law of Little Rock, told Arkansas Business that the allegations in the ASGA counterclaim have no merit. He has moved to dismiss the counterclaim, but the motion is pending.
Ballard said his clients are eligible and entitled to be members of the ASGA.
“I don’t understand the Seed Growers Association’s theory that if you join your industry organization, you have to vote for the current leadership,” he said. “And if you look at that counterclaim, half of the people that they kicked out voted to keep the same Plant Board representative at the Plant Board, so I think it’s wrong to suggest this is entirely about the Plant Board.”
A statute allowing the ASGA and other industry organizations to place members on the Plant Board was struck down by the state’s high court in May 2021, about a month after the seed association removed the farmers.
The state Legislature passed a bill last year that altered the selection process for the 19 members of the Plant Board. The new act required associations to submit two names to the governor, who would have picked one name to be confirmed or rejected by the state Senate.
But FarmVoice Inc., a nonprofit group representing Arkansas row crop farmers, and three farmers sued the Plant Board in August in Pulaski County Circuit Court, challenging the constitutionality of that selection process. Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Chip Welch agreed with the plaintiffs and said in an order in June that the process is unconstitutional. He enjoined unconstitutionally appointed members from acting on behalf of the board, and the Plant Board didn’t appeal that decision. The board now has 10 people on it.
In the last five years, the ASGA and other Arkansas agricultural groups have found themselves embroiled in controversy tied to the herbicide-tolerance technology called the Roundup Ready Xtend Crop System for soybean and cotton plants to control weeds.
The system “involves the use of dicamba herbicide in dicamba-tolerant soybeans and cotton to control weeds in those crops,” the ASGA said in the counterclaim. The association is represented by attorneys Tyler Griffin of Wynne and Joel Cape of Fayetteville.
Starting in 2016, reports of crops allegedly damaged by dicamba began to surface. “The chemical volatility of dicamba herbicides, coupled with a significant increase in the use with the X-tend system has resulted in unprecedented damage to crops and plants that are susceptible to the herbicide,” the ASGA said.
The Plant Board restricted the use of dicamba in an effort to reduce the number of damage complaints, the filing said.
“Unfortunately, the Plant Board’s actions drew the ire of soybean and cotton growers who wanted to use the technology,” particularly those of the farmers named in the lawsuit, the ASGA said.
Joining the ASGA
As the legal challenge to the appointment of the Plant Board was pending, a group of Arkansas farmers in late 2020 asked to join the ASGA, a nonprofit group that has a mission to educate farmers about seed quality and seed technology. It has about 50 members.
Farmer Charles Williams III of Crittenden County said in a group text message to the ASGA, a group that included other farmers, that they wanted to participate “in the full life of the organization.” The text messages were included as an exhibit to the counterclaim.
In January 2021, the farmers’ memberships were approved, and soon Williams was quizzing the ASGA about its other members. “It seems apparent that there’s a certain liberality in admitting members with respect to by-laws,” Williams said. “Given the apparent criteria, we have at least 50-60 other applicants that would like to become members.”
Williams also asked to purge the member rolls of those who weren’t qualified to be an ASGA member.
The ASGA said in a Feb. 26, 2021, letter to Williams that everyone met the membership requirements and none would be purged.
The ASGA’s election for officers resulted in Reed Storey being elected as president for a two-year term, beating out Williams.
In March 2021, Williams’ attorney, Kael Bowling of Friday Eldredge & Clark’s Rogers office, sent a letter to the ASGA, threatening to sue the association if it didn’t remove members whom Williams called unqualified. Bowling said in an email last week to Arkansas Business that he’s not authorized to comment on pending litigation. In April 2021, ASGA leaders terminated the membership of Williams and 10 others who joined in January 2021.
“We accepted your applications in good faith, and you have exploited that good faith,” Storey said in the April 19, 2021, letter to the farmers.
The attacks on the ASGA by farmers after becoming members “make it clear that your applications were not in earnest and that you have ulterior motives for joining ASGA,” Storey said in the letter.
He said that their actions with or for the ASGA “will be suspect,” and “the suspicion you have created will increase the acrimony between you and ASGA.”
Williams sued the ASGA in April 2021 in Crittenden County Circuit Court. In an amended complaint, Williams asked that a judge rule that the ASGA has improperly admitted ineligible members and it must purge those members from the association. He also wanted to be reinstated at the ASGA.
Ballard, the attorney representing the farmers, said his clients aren’t seeking money damages. The farmers also have an alternative claim saying that if the ASGA isn’t going to operate according to the law, a judge can disband the organization.
The ASGA has asked to consolidate the Williams complaint with the five farmers’ lawsuit. Ballard has opposed that motion, which is pending.