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'THAT'S HUGE'

CLARA CITY, Minn. - For a decade, the Peterson vs. BASF Corp. case has been little more than background noise in the life of Brad Hebrink, assistant manager of Farmers Co-op Oil Co. in Clara City, Minn.

CLARA CITY, Minn. - For a decade, the Peterson vs. BASF Corp. case has been little more than background noise in the life of Brad Hebrink, assistant manager of Farmers Co-op Oil Co. in Clara City, Minn.

The consumer fraud case involvingt POAST/POAST Plus herbicides took nearly 10 years to litigate, and the outcome always seemed iffy or at least far-away. The local full-service farm co-op had no axe to grind with BASF because the company is a major supplier of the chemicals it sells.

When a Norman County, Minn., judge issued a final judgment of $62 million against BASF and the money was placed in a fund Nov. 17, 2006, things started becoming more relevant to Hebrink and his customers.

With interest, the account has grown to $65 million, and the money is sitting in an account, with $31 million to $32 million waiting to be handed out to the farmers, while some $29 million goes to the legal team and related efforts

Recently, Hebrink and co-workers Todd Erickson, in seed sales, and Steve Hilbrands, in agronomy, dug into the Clara City co-op's records and helped their farmers recover records totaling 4,500 gallons of POAST. The value will be at least $148,500 at a minimum of $33 in value and up to $1.5 million - depending on how many gallons are submitted in claims. Farmers have until May 16 to file valid claims with the case's claims administrator.

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"If we did get this amount of money into a small community like we deal with, that's huge," Hebrink says.

No judgment, just dollars

Farmers Co-op Oil operates in a 30- to 40-mile radius of Clara City, in the heart of the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Co-op country farming area in west-

central Minnesota.

BASF, as Hebrink notes, is a huge player in the co-op's product offerings.

Before Roundup Ready soybeans came along, the company sold a lot of BASF's products on soybeans - Galaxy and Basagran. It sells Outlook, Clarity and Distinct on corn.

But the advertisements to potential class members started showing up in Agweek and other publications in February.

As assistant manager of the co-op, and its agronomy manager, Hebrink knew his farmers would be looking for their receipts. Anyone that can show they purchased POAST herbicide during the period of Jan. 1, 1992, to Dec. 31, 1996, was eligible for a payment, the ads said.

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The magazine ads led Hebrink and his colleagues to start rummaging through some old records - and some old memories.

Hebrink, who has been employed with the co-op for about 24 years, was involved in the sales of the POAST herbicide in the early 1990s. BASF came out with POAST Plus herbicide as a way to sell a cheaper herbicide into the soybean market.

"POAST Plus used more product - a pint and a half was equivalent to 1 pint of POAST," Hebrink recalls, but there was a $3- to $4-per-acre difference in price between the two. He remembers farmers complaining they had to pay more for POAST, but it seemed like there was little they could do.

The situation put Farmers Co-op Oil in a "funny spot" because they could only recommend what was labeled for the crop.

"We can't recommend an off-label product," he says. "Our hands were tied there, too."

It turned out that BASF had indeed registered both POAST and the cheaper POAST Plus for soybeans - both products by the EPA for about 40 of the same crops - so the farmers were fraudulently charged more for the chemical simply because they were growing a "minor" crops which may have had a higher value. Besides sugar beets, the crops included sunflowers, potatoes, beans, fruits, vegetables and flowers.

In 1996, North Dakota farmers filed a case against BASF and settled it in December 1996. In May 19977, Doug Nill had taken a case at the request of a North Dakota farmer who had bought his chemical in Minnesota. He later took it to a national class-action suit under consumer fraud stutes in New Jersey where the company's U.S. division was located.

In November 2006, Nill won the last of the challenges to the jury verdict judgments.

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More getting involvedNow farmers who weren't interested before started getting curious.

"We started getting lots of calls wondering if we had the records," Hebrink says. "We didn't find them at first."

Many of them weren't fully aware of their options under the suit, Hebrink says.

But three weeks ago, in late March, Hebrink and Todd Erickson, a seed salesman, went up the co-op offices after work one night. They looked in an attic area where old records had been stashed and started digging into some the boxes.

The co-op had done some remodeling, so certain records that normally are kept for only seven years had not been purged.

"It was an oversight that we hadn't thrown them away," he says.

"We happened to find 1994 to 1996 records. We didn't find 1992 to 1993," Hebrink says. "We told them if they hadn't already found their receipts, they could come and get them here. I started to make phone calls, asking growers if they happened to find receipts. Some guys hadn't even bother looking for records at home."

"Some didn't know about the case at all. One grower found receipts of 700 gallons over the four years. I told them they'd get a minimum of $33 and all the way up to $300 a gallon. So if you have 10 gallons of records, you're for sure at 300 bucks," he says.

Hebrink figures the records the co-op found involved about 80 growers that patronize the co-op. Very few had found the pertinent receipts. He estimates that about three-fourths of the customers still are farming. Most of the significant ones were from 1994 and 1995.

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