Wisconsin Judicial Panel Hears Arguments In Case

Published online: Mar 14, 2006
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A three-judge panel from Wisconsin's Fourth District Court of Appeals heard arguments from attorneys representing two potato growers and the buyer of their 2000 crop of Snowden chipping potatoes Monday in Stephens Point, WI.

The growers from Wisconsin Central Farms of Nekoosa, WI, are seeking damages from the way their crop was handled, graded and the final price given by its buyer, Heartland Farms Agriculture Marketing Corp.

Attorney for grower Darwin Blanke argued that the growers deserve more than the $202,000 they were awarded by a Portage County jury for breach of contract.

The growers should have received double damages and attorney fees as provided in Wisconsin's produce-handling statutes, he argued.

Lawyers for both sides argued whether the statute applied. The growers are seeking more than $550,000.

According to the WCF attorney, under Wisconsin statute the judge in the original trial, Circuit Court Justice John Finn, should have awarded double the sum of damages and ordered Heartland Farms to pay the growers' attorney fees after the jury found Heartland had engaged in illegal and unfair conduct.

It was argued that when the potatoes were delivered to a Frito-Lay fry plant in Mission, TX, in March--four months after they were delivered by the growers--they were of poor qualilty. Heartland then voided the contract.

"In the end, we ended up owing them money," Blanke said. "We originally asked for $270,000 and we got slightly less than that. We have had to incur tremendous legal expenses to get what we did so we would come out even. We aren't so much trying to extract the maximum from Heartland Farms, but we are trying to get what the statue allows."

"Our beef is with the potato chip industry," Blanke said. "When you ship potatoes to a chip processor they are inspected by the processor who receives them, not an independent third party. A lot of times we don't find out until its too late to do anything about it. That is the real reason we have pursued this as long and as hard as we have," Blanke said.

Mark Henkel, attorney for Heartland, stated that the jury concluded that Heartland Farms was in breach of contract, but it was not a breach of good faith and fair dealing.

"I feel we are in a good position legally," he said. "The trial jury found that this was a good faith dispute and my client was not engaged in intentional wrongdoing. We have paid the original sum, but it is not the purpose of this statute to cause further penalties," Henkel stated.

The case is considered a milestone in the chipping industry because growers--believing they were the victims of suspect inspections--went to court, won a breach of conract decision, and received compensation. Some industry leaders hope the decision creates a groundswell for growers across the United States to bring third-party inspections to the chipping industry.

"The potato chip industry has dragged its feet for as long as it could as far as inspecting farmers potatoes," Blanke said. "They stand to make a profit if they can control what they are paying for."

(Potato Grower magazine website newsletter editors acknowledge the Stevens Point Journal in Stevens Point, WI, for information included in this article.)