Accused of lying about failed crops, North Dakota farmer claims feds are pushing him out of farming
Prosecutors alleged Darren Tronson didn't follow good farming practices and lied about weather ruining his potatoes. The indictment is retaliation for filing crop loss claims, his attorney suggests.
FARGO — A Red River Valley farmer accused of lying about his failed potato crops is asking a federal judge to reinstate his ability to get federal crop insurance, with his attorney claiming the feds are trying to push him out of farming.
Darren Tronson, a fifth-generation farmer who owns DL Farms, filed a lawsuit on March 3 against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and its Risk Management Agency (RMA). He is asking the U.S. District Court in North Dakota to cancel a Jan. 12 suspension notice against him from the RMA that keeps him from obtaining federal crop insurance.
“They are trying to take away his livelihood,” his attorney Michelle Donarski said, adding Tronson is a hardworking farmer who is just trying to provide for his family. “They are trying to push him out of farming.”
The lawsuit comes as Tronson faces a federal criminal case that alleged he made false statements to an insurance company and the USDA to obtain federal crop insurance payments. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in North Dakota alleged in a criminal complaint filed Aug. 25 that Tronson failed to follow good farming practices in 2017 and 2018.
Tronson claimed adverse weather conditions, including drought, dry conditions and excessive moisture, caused poor potato yields, according to court documents.
In 2017, area producers averaged more than 300 hundredweight per acre, or CWT, while Tronson produced 20 CWT per acre that year in Grand Forks County, the complaint said. The next year, Tronson harvested 60 CWT per acre compared to 229 by other producers, according to the complaint.
“By failing to follow good farming practices, … Tronson has saved significant costs that would otherwise be required to follow good farming practices,” a grand jury indictment said, adding he has been paid roughly $5.7 million in indemnities for potatoes.
Before the criminal charges, the U.S. Attorney’s Office filed on July 14 a civil case under the False Claim Act to recover more than $2.6 million from Tronson. Prosecutors in that case claimed he failed to test his soil to determine fertilizer amounts, didn’t select proper land for growing potatoes, didn’t apply proper fertilizer, failed to properly apply herbicide, didn’t plant enough seed and didn’t properly prepare the seeds, according to court documents.
They also alleged he failed to harvest much of his crop in 2018 because he couldn’t pay for fuel and other expenses, the U.S. Attorney’s civil complaint said.
Donarski, who is representing Tronson in the civil case, said her experts found Tronson did use good farming practices. Other farmers saw similar losses in 2017 and 2018. His insurance company, the Fargo-based NAU Country Insurance Co., also revised a statement to say there was an insurable cause of loss, Donarski said.
There are no federal requirements for farmers to hire a consultant or soil test to qualify for crop insurance, she said.
The criminal indictment was brought after Tronson filed an administrative appeal for 2019 crop losses, according to his civil lawsuit against the USDA. NAU initially alleged he didn’t follow good farming practices in 2019, a claim the RMA backed.
Donarski claimed the appeal against that ruling resulted in retaliation against Tronson and eventually criminal charges. The criminal indictment is being used to kick Tronson out of the federal crop insurance program, Donarski claimed.
The suspension notice was filed six years after the RMA began its investigation into Tronson, his civil lawsuit noted.
Revoking Tronson’s ability to get crop insurance will “result in irreparable harm” to his farm, his civil lawsuit said. He can’t grow potatoes, soybeans or dry beans this year without federal crop insurance, the civil complaint said.
Tronson isn’t trying to scheme the government out of money, Donarski said.
“He’s just trying to do the best he can,” she said in regard to him making a living as a farmer.