Agricultural Department Gets Tough on Fake Organic Farmers

A fertilizer producer in San Joaquin, California who had already pleaded guilty to fraud charges is likely to face more legal issues in light of a new and more aggressive federal effort to crack down on cheating by organic farmers.

Kenneth Noel Nelson Jr. is one of the largest organic fertilizer operators in the Western United States. The 59 year old businessman now faces prison time as well as a hefty fine as he was found guilty on four counts of mail fraud and is among the latest of fake-organic-farming cheaters who have been caught by the Agricultural Department.


Investigators have recently picked up pace and have embarked on an age of enforcement. Since everything “organic” is going quite strong among consumers, many have started to exploit this niche by labeling their products organic even though they aren’t. They are thus enjoying the huge premiums that are usually associated with organic products these days. However, as Las Vegas criminal lawyer Nick Wooldridge asserts, catching these criminals is fairly challenging as this is growing sector. Nearly 16,000 certified organic operators have entered the market and the organic agricultural production is expected to generate $29 billion a year.


In this particular case, Nelson was accused of selling an estimated $40 million worth of organic fertilizer from 2003 to 2009 and he did not tell his customers that he had used chemicals that included aqueous ammonia and ammonium sulfate. His product was thus valued at much lower a price than the true organic kind but he used fraudulent tactics and obtained a fake organic certification. He faces up to 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000 for each of the four mail-fraud counts.


Prior to this case, another organic farmer in Oregon was sentenced to 27 months in prison for selling millions of pounds of falsely labeled corn. Another company California Liquid Fertilizer also pleaded guilty to fraud for using banned chemicals in their product and passing it off as organic.


Agriculture Department inspector general investigations pertaining to the organic agriculture program have resulted since 2009 in “five indictments, five convictions and approximately $524,000 in monetary results,” Paul Feeney, deputy counsel of the office, said Thursday.


The Agricultural Department’s National Organic Program has received much criticism for its lack of action since it was created in 1990. In 2010, department officials used to take nearly 15 months to take any action against potential organic-farming cheaters but now the department has become more aggressive and it is hoped that their vigilance will continue to bring cheaters out in the open.