Some hailed Vernon “Hugh” Bowman as a hero. Others called him a thief. This much is true: He’s stubborn and, like any good farmer, cheap. Several years ago, he tried to save a few bucks by planting soybeans instead of soybean seeds. In simpler times, Bowman’s plan might have passed for good old Hoosier ingenuity. Unfortunately, Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company—and a notorious ball-buster—doesn’t see it that way. And neither did the highest court in the land.
Bowman, 76, crops corn, soybeans, and wheat on 300 acres outside of Sandborn, a half-hour’s drive northeast from Vincennes, where the sharply carved hills of Southern Indiana surrender to the broad White River Valley floodplain. He is the guy you’d cast to play the rugged farmer in a fertilizer commercial. Tall. Gaunt. Weathered. Wears worn jeans, a plaid snap-down shirt, and a sweat-stained seed-company hat. Drives a Ford pickup that was probably red years ago, before the sun turned it pink. Hollers at the friendly mutt who nearly trips him every time he walks out the back door. In his yard, trucks, tractors, and farm machinery rust in a perfect row, separated by neatly mowed paths. “Dad always told me, ‘If you’re going to farm with junk, you’d better have a lot of it,’” he says.
Bowman’s father settled on this land in the 1930s, and Bowman lives in the same little white house from his boyhood. Bowman’s farm is part of what agricultural economists call “the disappearing middle”—modestly sized and often family-owned operations that, due to consolidation, development, and other factors, seem to be going the way of the woolly mammoth. After topping out at more than 20,000 in 1978, the number of Indiana farms from 180 to 499 acres had shrunk 60-plus percent by 2007. According to the most recent estimates from the USDA, the number of farms classified as “mid-sized” in the state dropped by 4 percent just from 2011 to 2012. Bowman once cultivated about 1,200 acres at his peak, and then lost most of it in the ’80s when his business partner went bankrupt. He never had children; when he dies, the 62 acres he lives on, held in a family trust controlled by his sister, will likely go to Bowman’s nephews.
For now, though, Bowman gets by on Social Security and tries to tease as much grain as he can out of each growing season to cover the farm expenses. After he brings in the wheat in the spring, he likes to follow it with a late planting of “double crop” soybeans, or “wheat-beans,” which tends to yield only a little more than half as much grain as a regular soybean harvest. That makes for a pretty slim margin if you’re paying the same premium price for bagged, brand-name seed, and it doesn’t sit well with Bowman. “I’m tight,” he says. “Always have been.”
For years, when area farmers wanted to put in a late crop, rather than buy “branded” seed from a commercial vendor, they’d pick up a load of outbound grain from the elevator and plant that instead. Brand-name soybean seeds—intended specifically for planting—could cost more than a dollar per pound. A bushel of harvested soybeans—sold as a commodity for “consumption”—could often be had for under $10 at the elevator, or less than a quarter a pound. You didn’t know exactly what you were getting, but what did it matter if you were only expecting half the yield anyway?
In the fall of 1999, Bowman hatched a shrewd plan. Just a few years before, in 1996, a revolution had dawned in U.S. agriculture: Monsanto introduced soybeans genetically modified to tolerate the company’s own popular herbicide glyphosate—Roundup. The system offered farmers the convenience of buying and spraying only one broad-spectrum weed-killer rather than having to till the soil and apply multiple chemicals that burned even the good plants. American farmers adopted the technology quickly and en masse. By the year 2000, more than half the country’s soybean crop—and roughly the same proportion in Indiana—contained Monsanto’s glyphosate-resistant “Roundup Ready” gene trait. Last year, the Roundup Ready share stood at 90-plus percent.
So Bowman drove up the road to Huey Farms & Elevator, which sold soybeans as a grain commodity. He “hoped” that most of the soybeans his neighbors had unloaded there were the offspring of Roundup Ready plants—and therefore glyphosate-resistant. He bought a load, put them in the ground, and, after they sprouted, sprayed the plants with glyphosate. The ones that survived, he knew, were definitely Roundup Ready. Bowman held back some of the seeds to plant the following year for his double crop.
He continued to buy, grow, and save soybeans from the grain elevator for the next few years. In the winter of 2002, he bought bagged, Pioneer-brand seed—which included the Roundup Ready trait—to use for his first soybean crop the following spring. He signed an agreement pledging to use the product “only in a single season” and “to not supply any [of it] to any other person or entity for planting, and not to save any crop produced from this seed for replanting, or supply saved seed to anyone for replanting.”
But the contract didn’t say anything about planting grain purchased at an elevator. As far as he was concerned, he could do whatever the heck he wanted with that.
“Years ago, what Bowman did is what everybody did,” says farmer Vaughn Huey, whose family owns the elevator where Bowman bought his double-crop soybean seeds. “But that was before Monsanto and patented technology.”
Bowman didn’t go to any great lengths to hide what he was doing. In fact, he told just about anyone who would listen. In 2006, two men from Monsanto came to his house to “interview” him about it. Then he started receiving letters from attorneys. Finally, in 2007, Bowman received a court summons: Monsanto was suing him for patent infringement and damages that eventually totaled $84,456.20 in 2009, when a district-court judge in Terre Haute found in favor of the $13.5 billion agri-giant from Missouri.
But Bowman wasn’t finished. “I’m a fanatical old bachelor,” he says. “I wasn’t going to give in.” He filed an appeal with the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, D.C., and a big-shot patent attorney from Seattle took his case pro bono. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to give the case a hearing.
Suddenly, the dusty, headstrong agrarian from rural Indiana was in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Forbes; an activist cause celebre was born. Monsanto-haters lined up to submit briefs bashing the behemoth. A joint filing from the Center for Food Safety and Save Our Seeds argued that “transgenic crops reinforce an industrial agriculture paradigm of questionable sustainability at the expense of more environmentally sound methods of farming.” The American Antitrust Institute teamed up with the National Family Farm Coalition and others to contend, alarmingly, that “allowing Monsanto to control seed reproduction sets the perplexing precedent of allowing a patentee to control a defining characteristic of life.” On February 19 of this year, Bowman showed up for oral arguments wearing an uncomfortable-looking suit and joined a press conference in front of the high court’s grand steps. “I wouldn’t have dreamed it would come to the Supreme Court,” he told reporters. He played the part of the little guy taking a stand against factory farming, GMOs, and evil corporations. Played it to a T.
The justices were not impressed. It seemed their only concern was whether patent protection for easily replicated technologies—like, say, software, or digital music files, or, of course, genetic characteristics—should extend to the copies, as Monsanto’s lawyers argued. And the court ruled that it should. “Bowman devised and executed a novel way to harvest crops from Roundup Ready seeds without paying the usual premium,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in a unanimous decision handed down in May. And the dusty old farmer from Indiana was, according to one widely circulating headline trumpeting the decision, a “seed thief.” Score one for Big Ag.
“Indiana soybean farmers need the people we do business with to have their patents protected,” says Joe Steinkamp, who serves on the boards of the Indiana Soybean Alliance and the American Soybean Association, which supported Monsanto in the Supreme Court case. “We want these companies to have incentives to continue to grow and develop new herbicides and herbicide-resistant crops for the benefit of society and ourselves.” Furthermore, he believes it’s simply a given among farmers that you don’t replant grain that contains patented technology. “The rules are well-publicized,” he says. “It’s about like how you know what to do when you get to a stop sign. You don’t have to guess.”
Back home in his little white farmhouse, Bowman has legal briefs, lawyer letters, and law books stacked in piles on nearly every flat surface: the floor, the sofa, the end table, the guest bed. In July, the high court quietly rejected his petition for another hearing. Which means Monsanto will probably be coming after its money (though Bowman’s farm, held in trust, is probably safe). “I’m poor,” he says, defiant to the last. “Let the bastards come on.” (In response to an interview request from IM, Monsanto spokesman Tom Helscher wrote, “As you know, the Supreme Court announced its decision on the case in mid May and we are no longer offering interviews on the matter. I hope you find this information helpful.”)
Bowman doesn’t have any gripes at all about biotechnology or GMOs or the rest of it. He would plant Roundup Ready seeds again—if Monsanto didn’t forbid it. “Farmers like Monsanto’s technology,” says Huey. “They don’t like Monsanto.”
But Bowman is thinking about driving down the road to Huey Farms & Elevator and trying to buy another load of soybeans. Just to see if they’ll let him.
This article appeared in the September 2013 issue. Read about more New Hoosier Farmers here.