Update: Southern Farmers File Lawsuit Against Arkansas Grain Broker

Update (Aug. 20):
LITTLE ROCK, AR - A group of southern farmers has filed a lawsuit (see attached) against an East Arkansas grain broker.

The civil suit filed in Lee County Circuit Court follows their worries about financial fallout we first told you about on Monday.

Sources say dozens of farmers delivered grain to the broker and were not paid. Some of them that did receive payment say the checks bounced.

The lawsuit alleges fraud, theft and contract breaches.

Original story (Aug. 18):
BRINKLEY, AR - "Hopefully next week we'll start sampling," he said, pointing to the burnt orange on the top of the stalks, 

Justin Higgins, 30, of Marianna is just weeks away from harvesting his fields. 

"Farming is probably one of the most important things we have in this area," he said. 

It's late in the season for farmers and many in East Arkansas, extending west to Lonoke, are wondering if the money they had budgeted on from their broker will be there. Higgins has done business with the local company in the past, like the majority of farmers he knows.

"Every little country store or parts store or bank, it's all anybody is talking about," Higgins said. "There's something new every time you talk to someone. No one really knows or understands what's going on right now."

Turner Grain Merchandising has reportedly handled millions in commodity contracts with farmers in Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana from its small brick building in Brinkley. Jason Coleman and Dale Bartlett were its known owners. Neither Coleman nor Bartlett could be reached for comment for this story.

Local sources tell us the firm's resources have dried up, with growers who have delivered their grain not getting paid and some holding checks that they can't cash. 

Based on reports from farmers, Turner Grain acted as a middle man. They would reach out to large buyers like Tyson who would set a price and a quantity of grain they were looking to purchase. The process is often referred to as booking.

"So the idea was that company would agree to say six dollars a bushel and they needed one million bushels," one farmer who preferred not to be named said. "Turner Grain would then approach the farmers, who would book a portion of their crops, sometimes tens of thousands of bushels, at that price to be delivered after harvest." 

In that scenario, Turner Grain would have relatively little skin in the game, taking a percentage or small fee for connecting the two. 

Some speculate that Turner Grain may have extended its operations with some farmers, actually purchasing the grain and waiting for a buyer to connect with, thus increasing the price risk.

The process of dealing with a broker, according to farmers we spoke with, is about eliminating risk. While prices could increase from that set amount the farmer had booked, they could also fall. Often, farmers would base what they planted, and their yearly budgets, off the amounts they had booked, assuming those prices were secured.

"You never know. The past couple of years the prices have been better during the harvest, and it hasn't paid to book early," said Higgins. "But this year is one of those years where if you booked early you did good because the prices have really fallen." 

Some farmers aren't sure whether their contracts on the books are valid, with some saying it isn't clear whether a buyer was ever lined up to take the grain at the harvest for the specified price. In that scenario, Higgins said, the farmer could be facing daunting losses. 

"Whenever you get this far in the year and somebody tells you your contracts aren't any good, it's scary," he said. "If I hadn't booked my crops early, I would have to be selling it a dollar short today from what I had booked it at. A dollar might not sound like much, but you start multiplying that by thousands of bushels, and it can turn into $100,000. I don't know anyone who $100,000 wouldn't be a lot of money." 

Let's say a farmer booked his corn with Turner at $6 a bushel back in the spring. Since then, prices have plummeted to about $3.50. So, if these contracts aren't valid, a farmer who booked 100,000 bushels at $6 now faces a $250,000 loss at the current price. 

"You go figuring it up, and it doesn't take long to add up to some real big money," Higgins said. 

"I don't have any firsthand knowledge," said Arkansas House Speaker Davy Carter. "But all sources would indicate there are tens of millions of dollars at play here."

If contracts aren't valid, or there's no one to buy it at the earlier agreed price, farmers could be facing those huge losses. That has Carter searching for solutions, that may not help now, but in the future.

"I've reached out to the chairman of the Agriculture Committee to see if we can look at how brokering is done in Arkansas and what, if any, additional regulations are needed. That might include bonds or insurance," Carter said. "We want to get all the facts to the table and see what can be done, because farmers are crucial to our economy. On the same note, we don't want to overreact. That's why we want a meeting to start gathering that information."

According to Carter, a meeting could come to start discussing those issues as soon as Friday. 

Higgins also owns a parts shop in Marianna, and the ripple effect could reach his customers there and beyond.

"Almost everybody's job around here in one way or another is affected by it," he said. "If you're not a farmer you might work for a farmer or your selling gas, chemical or even food to a farmer. Banks are lending to farmers. I'm going to try and help out my customers because I know them. That's all you can do." 

According to Higgins, while everyone is worried about the eventual outcome for farmers and their families, they are also concerned with those who worked for Turner Grain. 

"The business in question, they're from here, too. You know, they're friends of ours. It's going to affect all of them, and we worry about them," Higgins said. 

Ultimately, the hope is that no one will have to wave the white flag of surrender and go belly up. But according to the farmers we spoke with, it's unlikely anyone will come out ahead. 

"It's devastating for these farmers and the farming families there," Carter said. "Farmers are crucial to our economy in the state. It's our state's largest industry. But I wouldn't count these folks out. Farmers are resilient and I imagine a great many of them will pull through." 

Many sources we spoke with expect Turner Grain Merchandising to file for bankruptcy by next week at the latest. That possibility has farmers nervous as well. For those who are currently holding contracts, they are worried they might be forced to fulfill those, without assurances they'll receive the booked price or even market value for those crops if they become part of an asset pool in court.

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