BRINKLEY, AR - For the past two weeks or so, Christopher Taylor has spent a lot of time with farmers, his clients, hearing their concerns. According to him, he's only able to say he's sorry.
"You've had to look into these farmers' faces and apologize?" we asked Taylor.
"Every farmer I've talked to that's the first thing that has to come out of my mouth. Apologizing for someone's actions or doings that weren't my own," he said. "And I have to hope they know I'm telling the truth. I wake up every morning and that's what I'm facing."
A lawsuit filed in Lonoke County names Taylor, along with Turner Grain Merchandising and a host of other companies connected to owners Jason Coleman or Dale Bartlett. According to Taylor, he was an employee of Neauman Coleman & Co. but was a commissioned representative of Turner Grain, essentially the face out in the field farmers associated with the broker company.
"As far as knowing Turner Grain I may be the only person they [farmers] have had contact with," he said.
The suit, filed by a group of family farms, alleges Turner Grain acted as an agent for undisclosed buyers, and the farmers haven't been paid for grain delivered under contracts. Some of those contracts, which we're seeing for the first time, bear Taylor's name.
"I became aware of a problem the day everybody else did," Taylor said of when he knew something was amiss.
According to Taylor, his last paycheck from Turner Grain bounced.
"It's a nice parting gift for 10 years of your life," he said. "A bounced check. Those farmers who delivered their grain and got a hot check or haven't been paid, I'm in the same boat."
According to Taylor, he was unknowingly delivering hot checks to his farmers the night before all operations ground to a sudden halt.
"Did you know that the checks you were giving to those farmers were possibly hot checks?" we asked him.
"At 10:45 that night, I was delivering those checks because I wanted to take care of those farmers," he said. "Had I known anything before time -- there would have been no way I would have taken time away from my family to hand a man a hot check."
According to Taylor losses to farmers who have already delivered their product could be up to $20 million. For those farmers who still have their grain in the field, like this fall's corn, those losses from unfulfilled contracts Taylor said could go up to $100 million.
And the ripple effect, Taylor said, will go well beyond the agriculture industry.
"It could extend to the Little Rock auto dealer who had planned on selling trucks to these farmers. Some of those sales won't happen," he said. "It could affect the dairy farmer, who has nothing to do with this, that also sells produce and that's tomatoes or something that won't be bought. I think we'll be surprised how big this will get."
Farmers in the suit, according to their attorney, are asking for their delivered grain to be returned by the undisclosed buyers or to be properly paid.
"Turner Grain acted as the agent on behalf of the buyer," attorney Don Campbell said. "Someone received that grain, and these farmers haven't been paid. That's wrong. They either want the grain so they could still sell it or the money they are owed. Right now they don't have either."
Taylor said he hopes the farmers are able to get what's owed to them, because they've delivered what they were bound by in the contracts.
"They've done a really good job holding up their end of the bargain," he said. "I can personally speak to the Isbells and the Kittlers. They're good people to work with, good people to talk to."
As for why Turner Grain may not have held up their end of the deal, Taylor said he wasn't privy to the firm's finances.
"I never saw a bank book or a budget. I didn't have the power to write checks or withdraw from accounts," he said. "I think there was obviously some mismanagement, and maybe someone got in over their head without any intent to stop the bleeding. I hope something does come to light because I'd really like to know myself."
Taylor said he could speak for where he stands, and he hopes farmers will see it for what it's worth.
"Everything I've done is to benefit my area and my customers my goal was to get the best price for my producer that I could," he said. "I hope those farmers know that there was no ill intent on my part. I did my best to create legal, binding contracts on the front and back end."
As for his future in the business, Taylor would like to continue to help farmers by acting as their liaison in marketing, but he may have a hard time distancing himself from the dark shadow that has become his decade at Turner Grain.
"A lot of a man's word, his reputation precedes him whether it's good or bad," he said. "The person you're standing across from bases a lot from the faith of your word and reputation unfortunately this will be a scar I'll wear the rest of my life. But I hope I can continue doing this work, I enjoyed helping the farmers. I enjoyed being a part of it."
Taylor, saying he doesn't know that he'll be able to cover his bills, but he knows that some farmers out there won't be able to sustain the blow at all.
"I may lose my house and my car," he said. "But there are going to be some folks out there who lose their livelihoods. When I found out about this, I felt just like the Isbells or any other farmer. I couldn't believe it."
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