Idaho farmer pleads guilty in organic fraud case

Capital Press fileA truckload of hay heads down the road in this file photo. An Idaho farmer has pleaded guilty to charges related to selling conventional alfalfa seed as organic.

BOISE — A 58-year-old Bliss, Idaho, farmer has pleaded guilty to felony wire fraud and money laundering charges related to the sale of conventionally raised alfalfa seed that was represented as organic.

Bernard Saul, who did business as Bliss Seeds LLC, pleaded guilty March 29 to felony counts of wire fraud and money laundering.

His wife, Roza Saul, 36, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for delivery of a misbranded food product.

According to their plea agreements, Saul Farms sold more than 2.1 million pounds of conventional alfalfa seed as organic seed for a total of about $7 million.

Saul applied annually for organic certification through the Idaho State Department of Agriculture International Certification Services and Nature’s International Certification Services, according to a statement from U.S. Attorney Wendy J. Olson. He reported to certifiers that his farm raised organic alfalfa seed on between 42 and 81 acres and produced 35,000 to 85,000 pounds of seed a year.

However, between 2010 and 2015, Saul purchased seed from conventional growers — far more than his farm had the capability of growing — and re-sold it as organic, according the plea agreements.

Organic alfalfa seed prices are about a dollar per pound more than conventional seed prices.

Saul reportedly sold more than 66,000 pounds of seed purported to be organic in 2010, 305,000 pounds in 2011, 438,000 pounds in 2012, 545,000 pounds in 2013, 447,000 pounds in 2014 and 334,000 pounds during the first nine months of 2015.

According to the U.S. attorney’s office, his customers — Albert Lea, Kings Agriseeds, Blue River Hybrid, Byron Seeds and Foundation Organic — overpaid by more than $1.9 million for the conventional seed misrepresented as organic.

According to Roza Saul’s plea agreement, a sample of a shipment of Saul Farms alfalfa seed, misbranded organic, to a customer in Wisconsin in February 2015 tested positive for the presence of fungicides and pesticides in February of 2016.

The wire fraud and money laundering charges stem from Saul’s monetary transactions and purchases made with the proceeds. He reportedly used the money to buy 438 acres in Buhl, a recreational vehicle, a boat, a truck, a trailer and a $90,000 cashier’s check.

Wire fraud is punishable by up to 20 years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine, and money laundering carries up to 10 years in jail and up to a $250,000 fine.

Delivery of misbranded food is punishable by up to a year in prison and up to a $100,000 fine.

Bernard Saul will be sentenced June 7 by Senior U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge.

Roza Saul will be sentenced June 2 by U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald Bush.

The FBI and USDA Office of Inspector General investigated the case.

Roza Saul has agreed to pay restitution to the victims in addition to any forfeiture, fine or costs imposed by the court, according to her plea agreement.

Capital Press requested comment from the Sauls’ attorneys, who were not immediately available on Wednesday.

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