Farmer’s Fight With Monsanto Reaches The Supreme Court

700_21917a2318203b07201928748656e929This week, the Supreme Court will take up a classic David-and-Goliath case. On one side, there’s a 75-year-old farmer in Indiana named Vernon Hugh Bowman; on the other, the agribusiness giant Monsanto.

The farmer is fighting the long reach of Monsanto’s patents on seeds — but he’s up against more than just Monsanto. The biotech and computer software industries are taking Monsanto’s side.

Bowman also is battling a historic shift that’s transformed the nation’s seed business over the past 20 years.

Despite all that, Bowman seems remarkably cheerful about his situation. “Confrontation does not take a toll on me!” he says. “You and me can argue about the Bible; we can argue about religion. I’ll pound my fist and we can argue all day, and I won’t lose a bit of sleep at night!”

Bowman is leaning back in an easy chair, where he says he also sleeps at night. He lives alone in a modest white frame house outside the small town of Sandborn, in southwestern Indiana.

Out back, there’s an array of old farm equipment collected during decades of growing corn and soybeans.

Bowman is wearing a Monsanto hat. It’s probably an ironic gesture, but in fact, he’s been a pleased and loyal customer of the company’s seeds. He thinks the genes that Monsanto inserted into soybeans are just great. They let soybeans survive the country’s most popular weedkiller: glyphosate, also known as Roundup. He can spray that one chemical to get rid of the weeds without harming his crop.

“It made things so much simpler and better. No question about that,” he says.

Bowman uses these “Roundup Ready” soybeans for his main crop, which he plants in the spring, and he signs a standard agreement not to save any of his harvest and replant it the next year. Monsanto demands exclusive rights to supply that seed.

Bowman bought ordinary soybeans from this small grain elevator and used them for seed.

But here’s where Bowman got into trouble: He also likes to plant a second crop of soybeans, later in the year, in fields where he just harvested wheat.

Those late-season soybeans are risky. The yield is smaller. Bowman decided that for this crop, he didn’t want to pay top dollar for Monsanto’s seed. “What I wanted was a cheap source of seed,” he says.

Starting in 1999, he bought some ordinary soybeans from a small grain elevator where local farmers drop off their harvest. “They made sure they didn’t sell it as seed. Their ticket said, ‘Outbound grain,” says Bowman.

He knew that these beans probably had Monsanto’s Roundup Ready gene in them, because that’s mainly what farmers plant these days. But Bowman didn’t think Monsanto controlled these soybeans anymore, and in any case, he was getting a motley collection of different varieties, hardly a threat to Monsanto’s seed business. “I couldn’t imagine that they’d give a rat’s behind,” he snorts.

Bowman told his neighbors what he was doing. It turned out that Monsanto did, in fact, care.

“He wanted to use our technology without paying for it,” says David Snively, Monsanto’s general counsel.

Monsanto took Bowman to court, and Bowman was ordered to pay Monsanto $84,000 for infringing the company’s patent.

Bowman appealed. To the surprise of many, the highest court in the land agreed to hear his case. “I’m not a-gonna give in! Because I think I’ve done nothing wrong!” says Bowman.

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