Wheat seed investigation leads to $12,500 in fines for two Minto farmers

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MINTO, N.D. — Two farmers here are accused of "brown-bagging," the act of illegally transferring the seeds of a licensed plant variety, and they now face a total of $12,500 in fines.

The North Dakota State Seed Department discovered the alleged violation, which involved enough seed to plant about 350 to 400 acres, in June during a routine audit, and fines were issued in October, said Ken Bertsch, North Dakota's state seed commissioner.

Minto farmer Brad Narloch, 58, was fined $8,000. He was accused of illegally giving a licensed variety of spring wheat, known as Linkert, to another Minto farmer, 46-year-old John Kilichowski, who was fined $4,500.

The Linkert variety is owned by the University of Minnesota, licensed by the Minnesota Crop Improvement Association and protected under the Federal Seed Act.

Bertsch said Friday, Nov. 3, that Narloch legally purchased the wheat variety, but broke state and federal seed laws when he transferred it to Kilichowski for planting purposes without the approval of the variety owner.

In an email, Narloch said he and Kilichowski work together on many aspects of their farming operations and they combined wheat to maximize storage without mixing production.

"There was no sign saying seed for sale," Narloch wrote, adding that they didn't know it was considered brown-bagging.

That's typically the response of farmers found to be violating seed laws, Bertsch said. But he said the laws have been in place for decades and "virtually every variety of seed is protected."

The commissioner said it's tough to say how often such violations happen, but it's common for farmer-to-farmer sharing to occur without understanding the legal implications.

Federal seed laws are meant to protect consumers and variety owner's intellectual property rights, Bertsch said.

The Seed Department pursued civil action after investigating the Minto case. An administrative hearing with both farmers was held in July, and the case was turned over in August to the North Dakota Attorney General's Office, which finalized the legal action on behalf of the Seed Department in October.

Narloch maintains that he didn't believe there was a violation, "nor afterwards do we believe that large of a fine is justified."

Bertsch said the case has been turned over to the University of Minnesota to consider pursuing further legal action, but he believes that is unlikely. A university spokesperson was not immediately available Friday to comment on the matter.