Saved seed proved to be expensive

Carlyle Price's decision to save money wound up costing him $1.5 million when he planted saved Roundup Ready soybean seed. He's hoping his story will help farmers avoid the same costly quagmire he found himself in this spring.

Price, who grows 7,500 acres of crops in partnership with his cousins and brother, planted Roundup Ready soybeans saved from the 2000 and 2001 crop. The decision caught up with him in the spring of 2003 when Monsanto officials came calling on his Dillon County, S.C., farm. He readily admitted to planting the saved seed and worked with the St. Louis-based company in its investigation, even doing a video that warns fellow producers not to plant saved Roundup Ready seeds.

Monsanto, as well as other seed and technology companies, has stepped up efforts recently, reminding farmers of the 1970 Plant Variety Protection Act law and the financial penalties associated with planting saved seed. The law was amended in 1994 to include utility patents and intellectual property.

Saving seed for planting is a long-time practice many farmers use to reduce cost, picking the best seed from one year to carry over to the next. With new technology, the laws have changed. If Roundup Ready technology, or any other proprietary gene technology is in a variety, the farmer cannot save the seed for planting.

On the back of a seed bag, toward the bottom is the notice of limitations on warranties and remedies as well as a notice about patents. “The progeny seed grown from these seeds cannot be saved, transferred or otherwise used in any way as planting seed,” reads part of the information printed on the back of seed bags.

“I don't want a Southeastern farmer to wind up in the predicament I wound up in by planting saved seed,” Price says. “I want to make all farmers aware that saving Roundup Ready beans is against the law and what will happen if they do.

Under the agreement he worked out with Monsanto, Price agreed to pay $1.5 million in royalties and fines, not say disparaging remarks about the company, and spread the word.

It also coincides with Monsanto's radio campaign this spring. Working with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and the North Carolina Farm Bureau, the North Carolina Seedsmen's Association is airing the spots on radio stations through the state, says Walt Gerard, president of the North Carolina Seedsmen's Association.

“Private companies are getting more aggressive in protecting their patents,” Gerard of Washington, N.C., says. “When we were planting only certified seed and public varieties, it wasn't an issue. Roundup Ready has changed the whole ballgame. It's illegal to save and plant any Roundup Ready seed.”

“I can tell you, I'm not a happy camper,” Price says, recounting the experience he has endured this spring. “I don't want anyone to be in the same predicament I found myself in.”

At the time he planted the saved seed, he says, he had not entered into a written agreement to not save the seed, and was unaware of the financial risks of planting saved seed.

“I didn't realize at the time that it was such a serious infraction,” Price says. “I thought I might have to pay a small fee later.”

He believes seed dealers should “educate” growers better on the ramifications of violating the law.

“The companies that were selling the seed should have been responsible for better informing the farmer about the patent laws,” Price says. “The whole time I had been led to believe by seed dealers that it wasn't as serious as it turned out to be.”

On his farm, Price has always grown certified seed. He has always saved first-select seeds for replanting. So, he thought it would be OK to save the Roundup Ready seed for planting.

“Not a good idea,” Price says in an understated way.

Monsanto sent about nine people to investigate the claim. Eight months later, he agreed, out of court, to pay Monsanto $1.5 million in royalty fees. “A lot of headache, heartache and sleepless nights,” Price says. He spent more than $50,000 in attorney's fees alone.

Scott Baucum, intellectual property stewardship lead at Monsanto, said the company has been concerned about the rising trend of seed piracy over the past two or three years in the Carolinas.

Farmers in the Carolinas have faced hurricanes, drought and excessive rain in the battle to grow their crops in past several years. “Good people have been put in difficult situations and some have chosen to plant seed that is protected under patent laws,” Baucum says.

Monsanto has caught a number of Carolina farmers planting saved seed. Most cases have been resolved, some with litigation, others without litigation.

Baucum says it's important for farmers to understand why things are the way they are. Seed companies have made a lot of opportunities for savings for farmers since 1996. “The person growing conventional varieties is benefiting from the reduced cost of herbicide” because of Roundup Ready technology,” Baucum says. “Roundup technology has brought a great deal of cost savings and competitiveness to the U.S. farmer. We don't apologize for being paid for the benefits we bring to your farm.”

“I now realize that the intellectual property rights of seed companies have to be protected,” Price says. “I think if I had known this two years ago, I would have never saved Roundup Ready seed.”

For farmers who are caught planting saved seed, Price recommends the route he took. “Cooperate with the Monsanto people,” he says. “They will be fair. Don't try to be hard nosed.”

Despite the fine, he'll plant Roundup Ready varieties this season, the same as in the past years.

Only, he'll plant seed he has paid for and he'll continue to tell other farmers of the risks. “It's not worth it to plant saved Roundup Ready seeds.”

The year he planted the saved seeds, he had an average yield of 7 bushels per acre due to drought.

e-mail: [email protected]

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