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Corn farmers may be eligible for Syngenta settlement

Corn farmers and businesses starting May 11 will start receiving notices to file to prove claims in a Syngenta corn lawsuit. A preliminary settlement agreement indicates $1.51 billion in estimated claims, including $1.438 billion for U.S. farmers who did not raise Viptera or Duracade varieties during the 2013 to 2017 years. (Mikkel Pates / Forum News Service/Agweek)

FARGO, N.D.—Farmers who grew corn from 2013 to 2017 are likely to get notices in the mail in mid-May telling them to apply to be included in the $1.51 billion settlement with Syngenta over a faulty marketing of genetically modified corn varieties.

Federal and state lawsuits were filed in 2016 alleging that Syngenta was negligent in prematurely introducing particular varieties of genetically modified corn into the marketplace. China stopped expected corn imports, which the suit says cost U.S. farmers and others money in each of the years since. Lead law firms in the case believe it is the largest agricultural settlement in U.S. history.

The lawsuit payout will divide among four plaintiff classes: 1) All corn growers who did not raise Viptera or Duracade varieties, $1.438 billion (86 percent of the total) ; 2) corn growers who did raise Viptera and Duracade, $22.6 million; 3) grain handlers, including grain elevators, $29.9 million; 4) ethanol production plants, $19.5 million.

The settlement indicates that one-third of the money—about $500 million—could go to plaintiff's legal teams, depending on their responsibilities in the case and court approval.

How to do it

The federal case in June 2017 ended in a $122 million verdict for Kansas corn farmers, which set the stage for the $1.5 billion settlement. A federal district court judge in Kansas City, Mo., on April 10, 2018, approved a complex, 86-page settlement agreement. Eligible farmers and others are likely to start receiving mailed notices of eligibility on May 11, 2018. Then they'll have until Oct. 12, 2018, to go online to www.cornseedsettlement.com. Final approval by the court will come Nov. 15, 2018.

Farmers, grain handlers and ethanol plants must must register their claim and fill out a questionnaire, either online or via mail, says Michelle Donarski, a Fargo, N.D., attorney involved in the case.

"When you get the notice, go online and file. Do not wait. Do not delay," she says.

If things go as the preliminary settlement indicates, payments would likely come next year at this time. Per-bushel payment is not known until the court knows how many claims and bushels are filed.

Corn growers and others who hadn't previously signed up through an attorney also can go online and file their claim. The benefit for people who previously filed with Donarski or other attorneys is that the lawyers can help them file claims and make sure the Farm Service Agency acreage figures are accurate.

"We cannot sign up any new corn growers," she says. She says some ethanol plants and elevators have come to the firm for assistance.

Assuming the judge finally approves the current deal by Nov. 15, 2018, an administrator would start making payments after April 1, 2019. That's the date that Syngenta is expected to make its third and final payment into an escrow account established for the purpose.

Pie shared

Among the details: A husband and wife who farm as separate entities both need to file separate claims to receive full benefits.

Crop-share landlords must submit their own claim; the tenant can't do it for them, she says. Cash rent landlords are not eligible.

"When in doubt, go ahead and file a claim," Donarski advises. "The claim administrator can work through the claims and the payment."

Under the agreement, lawyers and farmers no longer are responsible for collecting FSA documents (Form 578, report of acreage) to verify claims. Instead, the FSA is automatically uploading the acres to the claim administrator. By filling out the form, the claimant authorizes the FSA to release the data. Farmers are not allowed to provide their FSA records and must sign the authorization for release of FSA records on the claim form to perfect their claim.

Farmers will be paid on a weighted percentage of the bushels they produced in a given year— 2013 (26 percent), 2014 (33 percent), 2015 (20 percent), 2016 (11 percent), and 2017 (10 percent).

They'll be paid on county average yields for each of those particular years—not an individual farmer's proven yield. Donarski says that hasn't been popular with many clients who felt they produced more bushels than their county averages.

Don't wait

Donarski, a shareholder-attorney at the Anderson, Bottrell Sanden and Thompson law firm in Fargo, brought some North Dakota, Minnesota and South Dakota farmers into the suit. The firm held meetings that brought in several hundred farmers and estimates they represent 75 to 80 percent of the growers in North Dakota involved in the case. They became involved with a lead counsel firm on the case. Initially, the case involved only those signing up, but later it became a national class action suit, providing compensation to all farmers and even agribusinesses.

Donarski declined to speculate on why the settlement included ethanol makers, who theoretically may have actually benefited from cheaper corn, which is the source of damage to farmers. She said the "global settlement" was to be all-inclusive.

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