Grass seed dealer agrees to $300K settlement in mislabeling case

SALEM — A Willamette Valley grass seed dealer accused of mislabeling more than 8 million pounds of seed has reached a settlement with state agriculture officials.

Dynamic Seed Source LLC and owner Trevor Abbott have agreed to pay $300,000 in fines to to the Oregon Department of Agriculture as part of the deal. The company will also have its wholesale seed dealer’s license suspended for one year, effective June 30.

ODA initially alleged Dynamic Seed Source and Abbott in 2019 had mislabeled 124 seed lots as Kentucky 31, or K-31, a popular variety of tall fescue used for livestock forage, manicured lawns, erosion control and turf.

Investigators later determined the company mislabeled 161 seed lots as K-31, totaling 207 infractions. Each lot equals up to 55,000 pounds of seed.

False labeling is a violation of both the Federal Seed Act and Oregon seed laws, regulating the sale and commerce of agricultural seed crops.

“It’s all about consumer protection,” said Elizabeth Savory, Seed Regulatory Program manager at ODA. “You want to make sure what’s on the label, that’s the seed they’re getting.”

Savory made the comparison to someone buying a bag of M&Ms, only to open the bag and find out there were Skittles inside — they’re both round candy, she said, but not the same thing and not what the person thought he was buying.

K-31 is sought after for its heat and drought tolerance, low maintenance and durability, fetching a premium price for growers.

About half of all K-31 grass seed comes from Missouri, Savory said, and the other half is grown in Oregon. In 2017, Missouri experienced a record-low harvest caused by several years of difficult weather. The shortage led to a spike in demand and prices.

ODA began an industry-wide investigation in 2018 at the request of the Oregon Seed Association to root out bad actors misrepresenting K-31 seed, based on anomalies in the market.

The Seed Regulatory Program has reviewed thousands of records from 214 registered wholesale dealers, Savory said, making it the largest investigation in the program’s history.

The violations allegedly committed by Dynamic Seed Source and Abbott occurred between 2016 and 2018. Under the terms of the settlement reached May 6, Abbott and the company neither admit nor deny any wrongdoing, but agreed to pay the combined $300,000 in fines and a one-year license suspension.

In a statement, Abbott and Dynamic Seed Source said ODA’s case was “unnecessary,” and they were always willing to prepare their labels per the state’s specifications.

“ODA sued anyway, and after two years of litigation the parties settled,” the company stated. “The settlement did not require Trevor Abbott or Dynamic to admit fault. They are glad the lawsuit is over and look forward to putting it all behind them.”

Once their license is reissued, Dynamic Seed Source and Abbott will be placed on three years of probation. Conditions of the probation will include twice-yearly records audits, participation in at least one workshop or training on Oregon Seed Laws and at least one in-person examination of records annually.

Savory said no other violations have been uncovered to date, though the investigation is ongoing.

Angie Smith, executive director of the Oregon Seed Association, said the group is so far pleased with the state’s review.

“It was at the request of the Oregon Seed Association’s members that we asked ODA to look into the sales of K-31,” Smith said. “We look forward to the outcome of that continued investigation.”

ODA Director Alexis Taylor said the agency takes complaints seriously and thanked the industry for their support and cooperation.

“Together with our agricultural partners, ODA is committed to keeping our industry reputable, strong, forward-thinking, and in compliance with state, federal, and international requirements,” Taylor said.

Oregon is the largest producer of cool-season forage and turf grasses in the U.S., producing nearly 591 million pounds in 2017. The Willamette Valley, and in particular Linn County, is affectionately referred to as the “Grass Seed Capital of the World.”

Grass seed is the fifth-largest agricultural commodity in Oregon, worth more than $517 million and driving more than $1 billion in economic activity.

Originally published by George Plaven for Capital Press, May 11, 2021