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What Vernon Bowman Says About Today’s Supreme Court Oral Arguments

Vernon Bowman is combination frustrated and bemused about his case that’s being argued today before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Neither side seems to get the point,” says the 75-year-old farmer from Sandborn, Indiana. Monsanto is suing Bowman for patent infringement for planting commodity soybean seed. Lower courts have ruled for Monsanto. However, the U.S. Supreme Court last year agreed to hear the case, and oral arguments for Bowman v. Monsanto are occurring today.

Both sides have their supporters, with food advocacy and antitrust groups lining up for Bowman. Meanwhile, Monsanto has lined up a who’s who of the seed industry and farm groups on its side.

“People who are for me think farmers will be able to save their seed,” he says. That’s not necessarily the case, he points out.

“If you sign an agreement that says you can’t save seed, you can’t do it,” he says.

Nor does he see a mass movement by farmers planting commodity seed as he did. Monsanto fears this would destroy the incentive to develop future technology.

“Elevators just can’t go out and grab soybeans to sell as seed,” he says.

One thing, though, is clear in Bowman’s eyes.

“The only thing that makes sense to me is that Monsanto wants to make an example out of me,” he says.

Different Twist

Bowman’s case is a twist on patent infringement cases that Monsanto has prosecuted in the past. Rather than buy patented seed directly from Monsanto and save it for the next year, Bowman bought commodity seed from a local elevator and planted it as double-cropped soybeans after wheat from 1999 to 2007. Since well over 90% of seed planted in the U.S. is herbicide-tolerant, it’s likely the majority of this seed was Roundup Ready, the patented herbicide-tolerant trait.

Bowman continued to buy patented seed for soybeans that he planted as his first crop at the normal spring planting time. He also signed and complied with agreements for this seed, promising he would not save it.

Double-cropping is risky. If rains and favorable temperatures result, planting soybeans in mid-summer can result in good yields. If drought strikes, though, the crop can be a wipeout. That’s the reason Bowman didn’t want to stick a lot of money into seed.

“I want to use good quality on my first crop,” he says. “I don’t want to plant junk seed out of the elevator.”

Glancing Backward

Looking back, Bowman wishes he would have bought patented commercial seed for his double cropped soybean strategy and compared it against the commodity seed he planted.

“I might have been better off planting the higher quality seed,” he says.

Bowman figures bin-run elevator seed limits yields to just 60% of professionally grown seed.

Bowman says his arrangement with double cropping elevator seed continued until Monsanto sent investigators to his farm. This triggered a legal process that ended up with Bowman owing Monsanto $84,000.

“There were a lot of letters sent back and forth for six months before they sued, saying I was not authorized to buy grain (for seed) from the elevator,” says Bowman. “They kept using the word ‘unauthorized, unauthorized.’”

Bowman initially fought the case, going through $31,000 and lower ruling court rulings against him before the law firm of Frommer, Lawrence & Haug took his case on a pro bono basis. Mark Walters, a patent attorney in the firm’s Seattle office, is arguing his case.

Ironically, Bowman notes weeds killed by glyphosate applied to Roundup Ready soybeans often are the least of worries for double-cropped soybeans. When soybeans are no-tilled for double-cropped soybeans, Bowman notes farmers often apply Gramoxone or other herbicides to kill weeds before planting. This can give season-long weed control as the no-till conserves moisture -- the lack of which is a major concern for double-cropped soybeans.

Bowman sees Monsanto’s position as hurting farmers who need to buy commodity grain for seed in emergency situations.

“If people don’t stand up for what is right, the country will go to hell in a hurry,” he says.

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