The Oregon Department of Agriculture is continuing its investigation into the apparent mislabeling of more than 7 million pounds of grass seed as the valuable tall fescue variety Kentucky 31, known as K31.
That’s enough seed to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool 1 1/2 times.
Mislabeling is a violation of state and federal laws, and growers fear the scandal could damage trust in the integrity of the grass seed industry, according to the Oregon Seed Council.
Grass seed is Oregon’s fifth largest agricultural commodity, with an overall economic impact of more than $1 billion.
“This is the single biggest investigation in the history of the seed program at ODA,” said ODA Director Alexis Taylor in a press release.
In 2017, ODA fined several members of the Oregon Seed Association for mislabeling seed, although the growers insist their documentation shows they followed labeling rules. Because OSA members suspected foul play and wanted to know who in the industry, if anyone, was mislabeling seed, they asked ODA to investigate.
In response, ODA began an industry-wide investigation.
After inspecting more than 2,000 seed lots, 200 seed dealers and 100 seed growers, ODA concluded that Dynamic Seed Source LLC, owned by wholesale dealer Trevor Abbott of Salem, had misrepresented 124 seed lots as K31.
According to ODA, a single seed lot can weigh up to 55,000 pounds.
ODA is fining Abbott $248,000. Abbott has not yet paid. He told the Capital Press he plans to meet with his attorney Monday to discuss his legal options.
Abbott said the heart of the issue is a disagreement over definitions, since new testing methods have narrowed the definition of K31.
“I feel like I’ve been targeted for practices that have been going on for 40 years,” said Abbott. “They’re trying to make an example out of me.”
According to Roger Beyer, executive director of the Oregon Seed Council, the investigation is ongoing.
“This was just the first,” said Jack Stockfleth, 2018-2019 president of the Oregon Seed Association. “From my meeting with ODA yesterday, I believe there are still other situations they’re looking at. Maybe I’m reading between the lines, but it looks like there could be more fines and violators coming down.”
Mislabeling seed as K31 is a big deal in the industry. K31 is a popular variety of tall fescue. According to Keith Johnson, forage specialist at Purdue University, K31 is valuable because it is lush, durable, heat- and drought-tolerant and low maintenance. It is used for livestock forage, manicured lawns, erosion control and turf.
Most K31 is grown in Missouri. In 2017, Missouri’s record-low harvest of K31 spiked the demand, leading to higher prices — $1 more per pound, according to Stockfleth. This in turn may have increased the temptation for growers and wholesalers to misrepresent seed for profit, he said.
Because 98% of Oregon’s grass seed is shipped out of state and 30% goes overseas, it’s hard to track where mislabeled seed goes when sold, Beyer said.
If the seed is used for turf, Beyer said, customers may not notice the difference. But those feeding livestock, depending on the type of grass they get, may face problems with endophytes — fungi that can be deadly to livestock in high doses.
Abbott said the seed he sold labeled as K31 was originally destined for China, but he sold it on the domestic market instead.
Industry members are most concerned about the breakdown of trust.
“Because this one guy and maybe others who aren’t even associated with us cheated, it’s hurting all of us,” said Stockfleth, of the seed association. “It’s embarrassing for our whole industry.”
The Oregon Seed Association, Oregon Grass Seed Bargaining Association and Oregon Seed Council in coalition plan to go to the state Legislature with a proposal to help prevent future mislabeling.
“We’re working as an industry to figure out a way to have this never happen again,” said Stockfleth. “This is a big enough problem to send up red flags at the Capitol. We don’t want more governmental regulations. We need to regulate ourselves. I don’t know what we’re doing yet, but we’ve got to find a solution so this won’t happen again.”