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Lawsuit claims Oklahoma FSA director threatened farmers

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Biggs
Biggs

A state Farm Service Agency director has been accused of unlawfully threatening farmers and blocking a billion-dollar industry from taking root in Oklahoma.

Equitable Organic Ventures Inc. filed a lawsuit last week in Oklahoma City federal court alleging Oklahoma FSA Executive Director Scott Biggs warned farmers against planting industrial hemp, despite the U.S. Congress and the Oklahoma Legislature authorizing a legal hemp-growing program.

Biggs told farmers they could lose their existing loans from the FSA, be ineligible for future loans and face criminal charges if they try to grow the cannabis plant, according to the lawsuit. The FSA operates under the U.S. Department of Agriculture and financially supports farmers nationwide.

If these threats persist, farmers soon will miss the hemp growing season in 2019, and a lucrative opportunity to plant before others states create similar hemp programs will be lost, the lawsuit states.

Biggs did not return multiple requests for comment from The Oklahoman.

The national FSA office declined to comment on the pending lawsuit.

The federal Agriculture Act of 2014, known as the 2014 Farm Bill, allowed states to create hemp pilot programs for farms to grow the plant with THC levels no more than 0.03%, too low to be considered marijuana. The Oklahoma Industrial Hemp Pilot Program was authorized in April 2018 and requires farms to grow hemp in partnership with a college or university.

Gov. Kevin Stitt signed Senate Bill 868 into law Thursday to create an updated hemp program under the 2018 Farm Bill. Should the USDA approve Oklahoma’s regulations for the program, it will allow farmers to grow low-THC hemp without a university partnership.

Legislators expect the program to inject billions into the state’s economy. Oklahoma House Majority Leader Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, said industrial hemp sells at a higher price than wheat and requires less water.

The plant is used in a number of products, including rope and animal feed.

“If we’re talking about total economic impact, you’re definitely talking in the billions,” said Echols, who co-authored SB 868. “It’s a great shot in the arm for rural Oklahoma.”

Echols declined to comment on the lawsuit against Biggs and the FSA.

Equitable Organic Ventures (EOV) stated 20 farmers gave oral commitments to planting hemp on 59,000 acres across Oklahoma, according to the lawsuit. However, Biggs’ threats have “scared all interested farmers from signing a contract with EOV and participating under the Oklahoma Hemp Program.”

“Biggs has no authority under law to make nor enact such a determination,” Equitable Organic Ventures stated in the lawsuit.

The group has requested a federal judge order Biggs to refrain from communicating the alleged threats. The lawsuit also asks for an order stating that participation in the hemp pilot program would not preclude a farmer from FSA loans and wouldn’t result in criminal charges.

A Harmon County farmer, Jeff Dill, reported similar warnings from Biggs in an affidavit filed as evidence for the lawsuit. He wrote that he considered entering into a contract with Equitable Organic Ventures until a Harmon County FSA employee read him an email from Biggs.

The email said he could be ineligible for all FSA programs if he participated in the Oklahoma Industrial Hemp Pilot Program with Equitable Organic Ventures, and his landlords would be subject to the same, according to the affidavit.

“Due to representations made to me by the email of Mr. Biggs, I am unwilling to enter into a contract with EVO at this time due to the represented ramifications against me and those connected with me,” Dill wrote in the document.

His county FSA office told him all questions about industrial hemp had to go through Biggs, but the executive director hasn’t returned any of Dill’s phone messages, according to the affidavit.

Equitable Organic Ventures’s attorney, Julie Ezell, said her clients have also tried to contact Biggs with no success.

Biggs, a former state legislator and prosecutor, has a track record of opposition to cannabis and drug-related criminal justice reform. He left the Oklahoma House in 2017 when President Donald Trump appointed him state executive director of the FSA.

Many Oklahoma farmers depend on the agency for financial support, Ezell said. None were willing to risk losing that safety net to grow hemp.

“The thought of (the FSA) pulling that support is the difference of being able to feed their families or not,” she said.

Ezell began handling cannabis-related cases after she resigned last July from the Oklahoma State Health Department. She formerly served as the department’s top attorney until the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation reportedly found she sent threatening messages to her own government email address about medical marijuana regulations.

Charges are still pending against her in Oklahoma County that allege she sent the emails to herself and lied to investigators.

Ezell said she decided to take on cannabis cases at her private law firm, Scissortail Legal Group, because of her legal experience and knowledge of Health Department rules.

She said growing industrial hemp is an agricultural matter, not an issue of an illegal controlled substance.

“You’re talking about 0.03% of THC,” Ezell said. “(Biggs) should be educated and in a position to know that this is not marijuana.”

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<strong>Ezell</strong>

Ezell

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Nuria Martinez-Keel

Nuria Martinez-Keel joined The Oklahoman in 2019. She found a home at the newspaper while interning in summer 2016 and 2017. Nuria returned to The Oklahoman for a third time after working a year and a half at the Sedalia Democrat in Sedalia,... Read more ›

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